During the Covid-19 lock down 2020 I decided that it would be the perfect time to undertake a course of study. What better way to spend the lockdown than acquiring new knowledge and skills? I was lucky to be sent a link to a free course run by Trinity College Dublin, the home of one of the best book collections in Ireland. The free online courses that caught my eye was “THE HISTORY OF THE BOOK IN THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD: 1450 TO 1800.” What a wonderful way to occupy myself during this enforced isolation studying and reaffirming information while immersing myself in the fabulous collections held at the prestigious college.
As I worked through the four-week course I kept a diary which I would like to share.
Week 1 How Books Were Made?
As expected, the first week started with an introduction to the course. We then watched a video on the Gutenberg Bible, the premier example of early printing using moveable type invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450. This was to become one of the most important innovations of all time.
We then went on to look at book development from manuscript to print. Interesting to note that manuscript production did not cease on the introduction of print but existed alongside the book for a long period of time. We went on to look at book production, how books were made, the people, materials, and processes involved. We also looked at the design of early book type or typeface. Typeface refers to a group of fonts of which there were two main types in use during the fifteenth century the first being blackletter/gothic, and the second roman.
We looked at illustrations and how they interact with the text. In this section we were introduced to Trinity’s various and beautiful editions of Aesop’s Fables dated from 1775 to 1811. (See image 1) These editions were used to show how woodcuts would be re-used, restored and refreshed by printers for later editions and how the changes that appear help identify the books today. The frontispiece was also introduced, how the illustration found opposite, or on the verso, of the title page provided clues as to what the book contained. Johnathan Swift’s “Tale of the Tub” (see image 2) has a frontispiece depicting a nautical scene where a ship (The ship of state) is in danger of being overturned by a sea monster (Leviathan, Hobbs’ moral and political philosophy) which is being distracted by a barrel (the book) thrown overboard by the sailors.
Each week concludes with a quiz, an assessment, ensuring that all the learning objectives have been met.
Week 2 How Books Were Sold?
This week we studied the bestselling books of the period, from Nuremberg Chronicle to bibles to children’s books. We looked at book selling and advertising and printers devices. We were introduced to Intricate images of printer’s devices, title pages, and advertisements. We looked at book auctions how publishers and printers and connoisseur collectors bought and sold their books, before finishing on book censorship using images from the wonderful collections in Trinity College and the Edward Worth Library.
We looked at the Bodleian Library’s Ballads Online, a database containing images and catalogue records of printed ballads from Bodleian and other collections. Bangor has its own collection of ballads which covers topics as diverse as tea drinking, murders, religion, and love poems. (see image 3) We followed the making of the Nuremberg Chronicle looking at political and economic factors that made a best seller. We than moved on to the bestselling book of all time The Bible.
We studied Jerome and the Vulgate to Erasmus to Martin Luther to John Wycliff and William Tyndale and on to Thomas Cranmer. We looked at how translations unauthorized by the Catholic Church offered a great challenge to the translator. As was the case for William Tyndale. Due to Bible translation being illegal in England without the permission of a bishop, Tyndale did his work in exile, constantly on the move around Europe, evading capture by agents of the Roman Catholic Church.
Week two ended with censorship we looked at censorship by the church and by the state. We also discussed how authors reacted to these restrictions. John Milton’s Areopagitica of 1644, in which Milton writes ‘thee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye’. Milton’s text is often taken as a call to arms for full freedom of the press.
Week 3 How Books Were Read?
This week began by looking at book annotations, these are the personal stories hidden deep within the pages, boarder, and fly leaf of the book. We then went on to look at Trinity’s beautiful and intricate Fagel Botanical Collection, a working library of an affluent Dutch family. The end of the week consisted of looking at how books influenced singing, literacy and handwriting.
Later we looked at the provenance of a book, which can be extremely important and add considerable value to the work. This mark of ownership also helps define books as social and cultural artefacts. Looking at annotations can sometimes help us to identify who may have owned the book especially looking at signatures and initials which often accompany older books. Bookplates, library stamps, the use of coats of arms and specific binding styles can provide us with further clues.
Trinity’s Fagel Collection is truly remarkable (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpKYZohU9vs). The Fagel Collection in Trinity College Dublin is the family library of an important political dynasty in the early modern Netherlands. The collection was started by François Fagel the Eldest (1585-1644), who was the father of the most famous Fagel politician of all, Gaspar Fagel (1634-1688). Gaspar was Greffier SG from 1670-72 and held the prestigious position of Grand Pensionary of Holland from 1672-1688. As a political family the Fagels’ books reflect their deep interest in acquiring knowledge for their public as well as their private lives. This is evident in their magnificent collection of beautifully illustrated botanical books, which they used both for reference and enjoyment. It may not be surprising that many of the books included tulips.
Week 4 How Books Changed the World?
This week, we explored how books changed the world. We looked at how the advent of print had an impact on the reformation of the church on medicine and scientific innovations. The Reformation in the early 16th century was a time of great change when people started to challenge existing beliefs. All these exciting revolutionary ideas were to be found in books.
Protestantism faced great challenges, not least in the area of religious imagery. Catholicism, even though they offered their services in Latin a language foreign to a mostly illiterate congregation, still had an abundance of recognizable imagery to rely on. The Protestant’s challenge, while emphasizing the word of god in a language understood by the masses, was to find visual material that would enthral them. They objected to depictions of saints and divine persons so instead concentrated on the visual material of the bible and on the death of Christian martyrs. To broaden the appeal of their message Protestants like Martin Luther (1483-1556) were the first to make use of these sources of visual imagery in books. John Fox’s Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church, better known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.(see image 4) Is one such book full of images of the gory deaths of martyrs sure to attract attention. There is a copy available in Bangor’s Cathedral Collection if anyone is interested in seeing the horrendous twisted tortured bodies of the Christians.
As books were instrumental to religious reform, they also had a great impact on science and medicine. We looked at the work of mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus “De Revolutionibus Orbuim” 1543 and the work of anatomer Andreas Vesalius, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” 1543. We then moved on to looking at the medical marketplace and the work of the most celebrated author of medical text Galen of Perganon. Galen wrote that disease was an imbalance of the four humours of blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile as told in his work, “Opera Omnia” (Venice, 1525). We then looked at Philipp Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim (1493-1541), known as ‘Paracelsus’ who declared that instead of ‘four humours’ all medicine should be based on the ‘Three Principles’ of salt, sulphur and mercury. These new views became popular because of the most famous infectious disease to hit sixteenth century Europe, syphilis.
Bangor also houses a large number of early medical books my favourite is by the founder of Methodism John Wesley called The Primitive Physic. (see image 5)
The last scientific subject studied this week which had another fascinating influence in print was how books guided our understanding of Earth and its position in the cosmos.
What a wonderful way to spend 4 weeks. I highly recommend it.
For further information
Library and Archive Service
Below see images of some of the books discussed that can be found in Bangor’s collections
Publication date: 8 March 2021