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University of Groningen Library


The diversity of incunabula at the University of Groningen Library

by Karst Schuil

In my previous blogpost, I demonstrated that the collection of incunabula at the University of Groningen Library is highly diverse. This time, I will attempt to unveil the origins of this diversity. The first cause can be found in the definition of the word ‘incunable’. The category of incunabula covers more than just books but everything that was printed before 1501, such as works by Avicenna consisting of several hundreds of folios but also a single indulgence consisting of only one folio.

Another reason for this diversity could be that every printer used their own font and most printers even had several fonts, resulting in a different look even for incunabula from the same printer. There were no standardized fonts such as Times New Roman or Verdana. I even discovered incunabula with several different fonts on the same page (see illustration 1), but these are exceptions to the rule.

The diversity of these incunabula was bolstered even further because some printers would use more abbreviations or differently spaced line spacing or margins than others. The different margins could also be caused by the binding and rebinding of these works. After binding the leaf, margins were cut off neatly for an even better look, but this naturally also affected margin width. These factors all created a large diversity in the layout of incunabula, which is clearly shown when we compare a part of a folio of the philosophical medical works of Petrus de Abano (illustration 2) to a folio of the works about the ecclesiastical calendar of Johannis Langer de Bolkinhayn (illustration 3).

Diversity can also be found in efforts to copy handwriting. Until the advent of the printing press, handwriting was all there was, so people naturally wanted printed texts to look similar to what they were used to. Examples include borrowing abbreviations and ligatures from handwriting culture. A ligature is a connection between two letters that is created by the speed at which a text is written, the style of writing and the way that a pen is held. The work by Langer de Bolkinhayn (illustration 4) shows yet other forms of the imitation of handwriting, such as copying notes in the margin in the printed version.

Diversity can also occur between different copies of the same print. In this case, the cause is usually the split production process. Although the production process in some cases took place entirely in the printer’s workshop, this was definitely not standard practice. After printing, the individual printing press sheets would be sent to the new owner. He would then have decorations and rubrications applied and have the sections bound. I have uncovered regional differences in these processes, in which copies of an incunable from the same printer, the same year and the same body of the text can look completely different. To illustrate this split production process, I have consistently compared two copies of the same work. Illustrations 5 and 6 show the difference that can be caused by decorations. Illustration 5 shows the Groningen copy of Cicero’s De Oratore, printed by Wendelinus de Spira in Venice (1470), and illustration 6 shows the copy at the Bavarian State Library. Illustration 7 and 8 show a difference in the rubrication of the work between the example from Groningen (illustration 7) and the example from the Bavarian State Library and the previously-mentioned work by Petrus de Abano. Finally, illustration 9 (Groningen copy) and illustration 10 (Bavarian State Library copy) also show that the bindings for incunabula (in this case, the previously-mentioned Articella) could vary considerably: both bindings stem from the fifteenth century.

Lastly, the passage of time also creates diversity. One example of this can be found in the book on Christian vices and virtues by Vincent van Beauvais, held amongst the collection in Groningen. Over the last 500 years, the index of this work has been lost (we know that it should have existed) and this was then corrected by adding a handwritten index (illustration 11).

I hope that I have been able to show that the artistic freedom of the printer, rubricator and decorator, but also the passage of time, have made incunabula the unique works that they are today.

Last modified:06 October 2020 11.32 a.m.
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