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Monday, February 6, 2012

Weeding or Reading?

Note: the following piece originally appeared in the HMML Chronicle in 2011. I am reproducing it here for those who may have missed it the first time.

Librarians often face the limits of tight budgets, inadequate space, and a shortage of personnel. So it is that the general rule of libraries is to keep only enough copies of any individual book for the regular use of readers, and HMML staff must also “weed out” duplicates occasionally as part of good stewardship practices. After all, with the introduction of printing in the fifteenth century, European books were “mass produced” and one copy of an edition was essentially the same as another. Or was it?

In contrast, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library makes photographic copies of manuscripts, because they are by definition (being “hand-written” books) each different from the other. Thus, if HMML has photographed scores of copies of the same text by a certain author, that is good, since the different copies may reveal different readings of the text, plus they provide information about the interest in and distribution of that text.

Three copies, three covers.

However, books printed in a single edition and that have emerged from a press are often considered to be the same and thus it is not necessary (or even desirable) to keep multiple copies. For printed texts, this may be true much of the time. However, even in the course of printing an edition the proofreaders may find errors in the typesetter’s work and force the printing staff to make changes. Rather than destroy pages that had already been printed, printers would often make the changes and continue printing. At the same time, the sheets had to be printed on both sides, and if the proofreaders and pressmen made corrections in the text at different points in the process, then the sheets themselves might vary somewhat from one copy to another. In many other cases, corrections were made through a list of corrigenda (items to be corrected by the reader) or even through the substitution of one leaf for another (i.e., one leaf would “cancel” another leaf). Thus, there were multiple ways that even the text within an edition printed before 1800 might vary from one copy to another.

However, that is only true for the text itself. What about the book?

The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library is steward to approximately 10,000 rare books, spread over three different collections. Occasionally we find “duplicates” in the collections. One example lies in a devotional work by Francis Coster (or Frans de Costere, Franciscus Costerus, etc.)— his De Vita et Laudibus Deiparae Mariae Virginis Meditationes which appeared in numerous editions in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This edition, published in Ingolstadt by David Sartorius in 1588, combines meditations on the Blessed Virgin Mary with a second collection of meditations on the Passion of Jesus. This divides the book into two volumes, with a second title page for the Passion meditations at p. 444. The Saint John's Rare Book Collection includes three copies of this edition. When one locates these items on the shelf, however, one is first struck by their different appearances.

The author

Francis Coster (1532-1619) was an early leader of the Jesuits. Born in Mecheln (Belgium) and accepted into the Jesuit order by Ignatius of Loyola himself on November 7, 1552, Coster spent most of his career in Belgium, Germany (Cologne) and in Rome. Coster established his reputation as one of the Catholic “controversial” theologians who challenged Protestant writers in the latter half of the sixteenth century. At the same time, as a fervent follower of the Virgin Mary, he promoted the work of Marian sodalities in Germany and Belgium and it was for these Catholic devotional communities that he composed his fifty Meditationes. Coster’s meditations on the Passion in volume two of this edition were also printed in English at Douai (France) in 1616. An important bibliography of Jesuit writers attributes forty-two titles to Coster, many of which countered Protestant publications. Indeed, the publisher of the 1588 edition—David Sartorius—was from a generation of printers in Ingolstadt, Dillingen and Augsburg, Germany, that produced many Jesuit works supporting the efforts of the Catholic “Counter-Reformation” in Central Europe.

Neighbors on the shelf.

The “Book” (or its cover)

In the so-called hand-press period (ca. 1450-1800), even printed books are still unique in some way, especially in their bindings. Only in the nineteenth century did publishers begin to issue their books already bound in a uniform manner for sale to the public. Before 1800, all books were bound by hand, individually, and according to the wishes of the person or institution purchasing the “book.” Depending upon the wishes (or wealth) of the buyer, the book might be bound in calfskin, goatskin, pigskin, or some other commonly available and durable material. In some cases, a copy of a book might never be sold, and thus might remain in storage, as folded, unbound sheets. For example, HMML has two copies of a very large 1732 chronicle of Göttweig Abbey (Austria)—one bound in the nineteenth century in two volumes. The other copy, a recent gift to HMML, has never been bound and is still in loose folded sheets and leaves of plates, as it would have been when it was first published 279 years ago. It is a little like those old “do-it-yourself” kits that enabled people to build their own radio, only in this case one is building a book! But let’s get back to Coster.

HMML’s three copies of Coster’s work are all quite small (from 4 1/8 inches to 4 ¾ inches tall). Of the edition’s more than 821 pages, 443 are dedicated to the Virgin and the remainder to the Passion. One curiosity is the pagination pattern, which changes slightly with volume two, so that the second half of the book deviates from common pagination practice by placing even numbers on the front side of each leaf.

All three copies have contemporary bindings that likely date to the late sixteenth century. Copy 1 is bound in stamped brown leather over wooden boards, with remnants of gilding in the decoration. One clasp (of an original two) remains. The edges of the leaves are stained a simple blue. Other than in its short, squat stature, copy 2 does not look like its “twin.” This copy has a soft vellum binding with decoration pressed into it.

Decoration on front cover of copy 2.

Edge decoration on copy 2.

Of particular interest is the decoration on the edge of the leaves that sets this copy apart as a “nicer” copy. Rather than clasps, this copy appears to have once had ties that are no longer extant. Remnants of a handwritten shelving label can still be found on the spine.

The final copy of Coster’s work deviates even further from the other two. Copy 3 was apparently bound in two pieces, of which HMML has only volume one (pages 1-443). Like so many other books from German monastic libraries in the HMML collections, this one is bound in blind-stamped pigskin over wooden boards. Although the pigskin is stained and discolored from use and age, it still shows remnants of the protective clasps. Like copy 1, this copy has simple, blue-stained edges on the leaves.

Three copies of the same "book" but with different results.

So, we have three copies with completely different bindings, made for three different “customers.” Indeed, it is this lesson of provenance that deepens interest in these three items as books, rather than mere texts. It seems likely that all three books came as part of a large gift from the Monastery of Ottobeuren in Bavaria in 1877. Two have explicit ownership notes from Ottobeuren (copies 1 and 2) and copy 3’s pigskin binding is similar to most books that came in that gift. The main title page bears a simple woodcut of the Virgin and Infant distributing gifts to the faithful. However, their stories seem to diverge from there.

The books from Ottobeuren almost always bear an ownership note on the title page, which stands alone on copy 1, but which is accompanied by other ownership notes on copy 2. It appears that copy 2 belonged to someone else before it came to Ottobeuren. Copy 3, which lacks its title page, probably belonged to one of the monasteries closed in the early nineteenth century by the Bavarian King. Such books often lost their title pages, perhaps as a way to make it more difficult for such institutions to try later to reclaim their lost property.

Three copies– three different stories in the title pages. Copy 1 (below) has a simple ownership note from the Monastery of Ottobeuren (“Ad usum Fratribus Ottenpuriensis”); while copy 2 has multiple ownership notes (including Ottobeuren); and copy 3 has no title page at all, only a later handwritten identification on the inside cover.

Ownership note in copy 3.

An ownership note does appear in copy 3, but it does not appear to be from the Monastery of Ottobeuren, but rather (and more likely) from a member of the type of Marian sodality for which Coster composed his meditations.

Finally, we come to the question of the reception of the work. Rare book librarians have shifted their approach to books as containers of texts alone to containers of stories (or perhaps: containers as stories). For example, one Latin-Greek New Testament in the Saint John’s collection was earlier described as uninteresting because a previous owner had bound-in blank sheets for taking notes (“interleaving”). In the late 1980’s, when this book was donated to Saint John’s, the librarian expressed dissatisfaction that the owner had defaced a nice eighteenth-century book this way. Today, however, librarians and scholars are equally interested in the history of the individual book and in its scholarly reception. Sometimes, just finger smudges on the leaves can tell the story of a book’s popularity (or lack thereof) or how it was used (or wasn’t). Catalogers are now asked to provide information about what makes their copy of an incunable (or book printed in the fifteenth century) different from other copies from the same edition, rather than re-constructing an ideal copy of that edition. Other than the different bindings, can we find evidence of reception in our three copies of the Meditationes?

While the text pages of the three Coster copies are largely unmarked, one small change made on the title page of copy 1 indicates a slightly less than reverent view of Marian devotion. At some point in the last 423 years, someone saw fit to make alterations to the pious scene of Mary and Jesus dispensing gifts. Unfortunately, the changes are undated.

What were they thinking ...

Copy 1.

Copy 2.