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The Library on Incunabula


The Library is happy to announce the first of its annual 'Virtual Issues'. Each will comprise a retrospective gathering of key articles in a particular field that have appeared in the pages of The Library since the journal’s first appearance. These will be chosen by a guest editor, who will also supply an editorial reflecting on the field, its history, and its prospects, here and beyond. The articles will remain freely available for three months, but the editorial permanently.

Virtual Issue no. 1: The Library on Incunabula

To mark the occasion of his retirement from the British Library, where he was Head of Incunabula and Early Western Printed Collections, the guest editor of this Virtual Issue is John Goldfinch.

As might be expected, fifteenth-century printing has figured in the publications of the Bibliographical Society from its foundation. The November 1892 Inaugural Address of the Society’s first president, W. A. Copinger, called for the Society to give priority not just to the bibliography of early English printing, but also for an attempt to make up the deficiencies in the then current array of incunable bibliographies. This of course was a personal interest, not to say obsession, of Copinger’s, and when the Society failed to take his lead he attempted to supply the deficiency himself with his privately-published ‘Supplements’ to Ludwig Hain’s Repertorium bibliographicum . But the pages of the Society’s Transactions none the less do reflect an interest in the fifteenth century and in the work going on to clarify the then still rather confused view of the period.

The Library , before 1920 a publication independent of the Society, also published regular articles on incunabula; prominent among the authors being A. W. Pollard and Robert Proctor of the British Museum, undisputed leaders in the study of incunabula in the English-speaking world. Topics covered were varied, and include a still-useful series of articles published between 1903 and 1907 by Robert Steele entitled ‘What fifteenth century books are about’. Controversy was not eschewed - the misguided enthusiast J. H. Hessels disputed the claims made for Gutenberg as the inventor of printing over eight issues of The Library between 1909 and 1912.

Following the break in publication occasioned by the 1914–1918 War, no volume of The Library was without something relevant to fifteenth-century printing (although occasionally only a short review), for some forty years. Not all were full-length articles by any means; many were short notes arising from the ongoing cataloguing of the British Museum’s incunabula. Curt Bühler from New York was, from 1953, the most regular non-Museum contributor, with a number of short pieces on early English printing, his series ending less happily with an article in 1959 supporting an early date for the controversial Missale Speciale shortly before publication of the indisputable evidence that the book dated from the 1470s. In 1961, coinciding almost exactly with the resignation from editorship of The Library of J. C. T. Oates, author of the outstanding catalogue of incunabula at the University Library, Cambridge, publication of articles on incunabula, apart from reviews, dried up almost completely. Short articles certainly appeared from time to time, but nothing substantial before Howard Nixon’s Caxton quincentenary contribution on Caxton at Westminster in 1976, and then an article on Caxton and St Winifred by Martin Lowry in 1983.

Another change of editor, this time to Mervyn Jannetta, coincided with this resumption in the coverage of fifteenth-century printing, and articles then appeared in most years up to 2008. This last twenty-year span saw contributions from a wider range of authors than before, as well as on more diverse themes. Besides the more traditional reports of hitherto unknown or unrecognised incunables, John Dreyfus wrote in 1988 on the invention of spectacles and the advent of printing, there were two pieces by Adri Offenberg on early Hebrew printing, and an attempt by Martin Boghardt in 2000 at an interpretation of pinhole evidence in some of the earliest books.

Choosing eight pieces to represent The Library ’s coverage of the fifteenth century has not been easy. I have decided to ignore reviews, despite some being of lasting value, and the best as memorable as any article proper. The articles I have chosen seem to me to be readable and to be of abiding interest, to show a wide range of possible approaches to the study of fifteenth-century books insofar as covered by The Library, and to be for the most part likely to be of some interest to readers without any specialized knowledge of the material.


The Inventory of Incunabula in Great Britain and Ireland
by Ernst Crous
Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, 12 (1913)

The ‘Gutenberg’ Bible
by Robert Proctor,
The Library, II, 3 (1901)

The Building up of the British Museum Collection of Incunabula
by Alfred W. Pollard
The Library, IV, 5 (1924)

Early Humanistic Script and the First Roman Type
by Stanley Morison
The Library, IV, 24 (1943/44)

Austrian Monastic Libraries
by E. Ph. Goldschmidt
The Library, IV, 25 (1944–5)

The Private Diary of Robert Proctor
by Victor Scholderer
The Library, V, 5 (1951)

The above to be read in conjunction with:
Robert Proctor’s Diaries (correspondence)
by Sydney Cockerell
The Library, V, 6 (1951)

Watermark Evidence for the Competitive Practices of Antonio Miscomini
by Paul F. Gehl
The Library, VI, 15 (1993)

Juan de Carvajal and Early Printing: The 42-line Bible and the Sweynheym and Pannartz Aquinas
by Martin Davies
The Library, VI, 18 (1996)

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