Private Lives of Print: the use and abuse of books 1450-1550

The exhibition Private Lives of Print: the use and abuse of books 1450-1550is on until 11 April at Cambridge University Library.

It looks at early books, their owners and how they treated their books.

A Gutenberg Bible, considered the first mass produced printed book, is displayed in the exhibition.

Although of course, groundbreaking, the advent of the printing press did not result in the immediate demise of the manuscript; indeed print and manuscript have co-existed for centuries. Significantly the Psalterium Virginis Mariae on display consists of 6 manuscripts and 2 printed incunabula (books printed before 1501) all bound together in one volume.

The binding of printed sheets could be bespoke, tailored to the owners requirements, or assembled by the printer for sale. Examples of bookbindings in the exhibition include those made of goatskin, calf, pigskin and sheepskin.

The owners of printed works continued to enhance their books in the same ways they did in in their manuscripts. This included hand colouring and illumination – the vivid green and purple in a Venetian Bible on display, for example is striking.

Spaces on the page which were left intentionally blank by printers, were often filled with annotations by the reader. It is this writing in books which many modern readers, and particularly librarians, find offensive and an ‘abuse’ of books. I hasten to add, as a librarian that the general objection is because the the book is not owned by the reader/annotator.

Nevertheless, marginalia can often be enlightening. Critical notes, or other comments on the text can show the reader’s interaction with the book. While the addition of , for example, music or recipes which are totally unrelated to the content of the book give glimpses of everyday life.

Manicules are the most delightful of annotations, the pointing hand, drawn to highlight significant passages (an example, although not from this exhibition, is the image at the top of this article) Much better than the modern use of the sticky note, which again is frowned upon by librarians, as they can tear the page when removed.

Ownership marks feature in many of the books on display and range from the elaborate coats of arms of the wealthy to a short signature scrawled on the inside cover.

Provenance of one book in the exhibition has been assigned to Thomas Parr, because of a few lines written inside by Katherine Parr, last wife of Henry VIII:

‘oncle wan you do on this loke
I pray you remember wo wrote thys in your bo[ke]
Your louuyinge nys Katherine Parr’

The exhibition is a fascinating insight into how books were made and used in the early modern period.

For further information and images please see the online version of the exhibition.
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  • a sheet of extra resources for you to continue research into themes mentioned in the article.


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