Thursday, 18 May 2017 09:06 GMT

Rare 15th century prints discovered in Reading

We tend to think of Johannes Gutenberg as the father of print when he invented the first ever screw press in 1440; based on the idea of a wine press but using his skills as a goldsmith the German inventor developed movable type and thus the modern printing industry.

In Britain, the merchant trader William Caxton who spent much time in the Low Countries and Germany at the same time took an interest in the process and developed his own press. Within a couple of decades Caxton established a press in modern day Belgium and then one in London. 

Now, some of his first pieces of print have come to light after being hidden in a library book at Reading University.
Two pages of a medieval handbook of 1476 for rooky priests were found in the University’s antique books. Printed in Latin, the sheets are valued at around £100,000 revealing how print can go up in value—after 500 years.

Erika Delbecque, the college’s Special Collections librarian, was cataloguing thousands of items illustrating the history of printing and graphic design when she chanced upon the ancient pages.

According to the BBC, Delbecque said: “This well preserved item is the only one of its kind, and one of just two surviving fragments from this medieval Caxton book in existence.

The examples of print are written in Latin and explain to priests how to 
prioritise work

“The leaf had previously been pasted into another book for the undignified purpose of reinforcing its spine. We understand it was rescued by a librarian at the University of Cambridge in 1820, who had no idea that it was an original Caxton leaf.

“I suspected it was special as soon as I saw it. The trademark blackletter typeface, layout and red paragraph marks indicate it is very early western European printing. It is incredibly rare to find an unknown Caxton leaf, and astonishing that it has been under our noses for so long.”

It is written in Medieval Latin and is from a book called the Sarum Ordinal or Sarum Pye, which instructed priests on how to prioritise religious feast days for English saints.

The page was part of a collection that previously belonged to late typographer John Lewis and his wife Griselda, a writer and book designer. The collection was purchased by the University for £70,000 at auction in 1997, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

We understand it was rescued by a librarian at the University of Cambridge in 1820, who had no idea that it was an original Caxton leaf

The leaf then lay hidden among many thousands of other items in the archives for almost 20 years before being identified.

Early printing specialist Andrew Hunter comments: “In the world of rare books, certain words have special, almost magic, resonance, and Caxton is one of them."

Copies of the Sarum Ordinal were produced in Westminster, before the Reformation, and consisted of around 160 leaves. The text was originally established as a manuscript by St Osmund, the Bishop of Salisbury, in the 11th century; it would have been owned by clergymen and consulted on a regular basis, but was discarded after the Reformation.

Erika Delbecque, the college’s Special Collections librarian, discovered the works

Only one other surviving fragment of the book exists, consisting of eight double-sided leaves, and are held at the British Library in London.

Dr Lotte Hellinga, formerly Deputy Keeper at the British Library and an expert on Caxton, comments: “It is very rare that an unknown piece of printing by William Caxton is brought to light. The example found in Reading belongs to a different part of the book than those held in the British Library.

“Its condition is good, considering that it spent some 300 years bound in the spine of a book, and another 200 resting forgotten in an album of fragments rescued from other bindings.”

If this were ever to come on the market there would definitely be competition for it; it would be a great prize for a private collector, and a feather in the cap of any institution

Early printing specialist Andrew Hunter, of Blackwells Books, who carried out the valuation of the leaf, said: “In the world of rare books, certain words have special, almost magic, resonance, and Caxton is one of them. Thus the discovery of even a fragment from among Caxton's earliest printing in England is thrilling to bibliophiles, and of great interest to scholars.

“If this were ever to come on the market there would definitely be competition for it; it would be a great prize for a private collector, and a feather in the cap of any institution.”