Sunday, November 29, 2020

A failure to follow directions

Missal leaf, with mistakes.
In a post from last year, I wrote about some guide letters, where a scribe (or, in that case, a typesetter) indicates to a rubricator what letter should be inserted in a space. Perhaps it should go without saying, but even when the directions are clear, mistakes sometimes are made.

In the case of the small missal or breviary leaf to the left (the whole leaf measures only about 5 3/4" by 3 1/4"), at least two errors can easily be seen. 

The more obvious one involves the red (i.e., rubricated) text written into the lower margin. It is, as one might be able to see, preceded by a little red caret; the matching sign can be found in line 18 of the first column, just to the left of the two-line red "n" in the right hand column. As I hope is obvious, the position of the matching sign indicates where the added passage belongs.

Very possibly, this was a mistake by the primary scribe; at the least it seems to have been corrected by a second scribe, who uses a single-compartment a, rather than the main scribe's regular, two-compartment a. It is notable that this correction has been written on a couple of added ruling lines, provided just for this passage.

The second error, however, is clearly made by the rubricator. 

Although they may be difficult to see on the full-page image of this page, guide letters survive in the right-hand margin of this page: q, n, and n. The first two were no trouble for the rubricator, but something went wrong with the third:

Closer view of rubrication error and correction.

For whatever reason, the left-hand side of this letter was extended across three lines, not two: it looks like the rubricator intended to make a p, but certainly what was originally there could not have been easily read as an n. Not only was the letter painted in with blue, but the decorative red-pen lines were added before the mistake was corrected: someone else, presumably, came upon this and scraped away the lower part of the letter and added black ink serifs at the feet of the n, to make the letter clear. 

I find it strangely comforting to know that my own failures, at times, to follow directions are nothing new in the world, and even medieval scribes and rubricators had their off days.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

A Codex-Scroll? 1910 Ohio Highway Atlas

1910 Highway Maps of Ohio.
Books have been around for a very long time.  Codexes—by which I mean books made up of more than one leaf, bound together along one edge—have been around nearly as long, with single-fold examples surviving from Vindolanda, from the first or second century. Other multi-leave examples were preserved in Herculaneum by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79. 

During the long span of this history, there seems to have been endless experimentation with the basics of the codex form, and although I’ve been interested in physical books and book history for some time, every now and then I am still delighted to come across a book in a format that I’ve never seen before.


That’s the case with the book I am showing off here today. The book is an album of county maps for the state of Ohio, showing the state of the state’s roads and highways in 1910. Roads on each map are color coded: red for brick paving, orange for macadam, and blue for gravel. Probably it goes without saying, but a large number of Ohio’s roads in 1910 were none-of-the-above: unpaved dirt roads, presumably. 


[The road my dad lives on today, for what it’s worth, shows up on the relevant map in this atlas as just such a dirt road, which it still is now, 110 years later. He tells me, however, that soon it will be paved: and that’s infrastructure progress in Ohio.]


Anyway, this highway atlas is a codex, bound at the left edge; the first picture above shows the front cover, with printed text on very heavy brown cloth.

This picture, on the other hand, shows the book as it appeared when I purchased it:

1910 Highway Maps, as found.

As a rule, atlases and books of maps are like other books: condition matters, and one hopes to find each map flat and clean. The water damage visible on the front cover is not a pleasing feature, but the tight rolling-up of the book as a whole seems, at first glance, like a sad consequence of the books mistreatment and mis-storage across the last century or so.

1910 Highway Maps, showing
long extension of rear wrap.

But in fact, that's not the case. It seems (to me, at least) fairly clear that this copy of the book was issued to be rolled like this: the rear cover, made of the same cloth as the front, extends at least six inches beyond the edge of the text block, and this extension seems clearly intended to provide extra protection for the book when rolled. This sort of horizontal rolling make this printed codex at least a little bit like a scroll.

I have been unable to determine if all the published copies of this book were given the same treatment; it looks to me as if the extra cloth could easily be trimmed off, if one expects to store one's copy of the book flat. It would be a shame, I think, to flatten this one out, no matter how much that would ease the problem of storage.

It's a continuing surprise to me, when I find something I've not seen before--but it does still happen, once in a while. And so, surprise or not, I've come to expect that it will happen again.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

King Alfred of Wessex Bookplate

Charles Fifield's Bookplate (ca. 1902).
The Corona-virus pandemic has recently virtualized two academic conferences I had hoped to attend next summer, the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo (May 2021) and the International Medieval Congress in Leeds (July 2021). Of course it is true that the academic work of presenting papers (and attending papers as they are read) can still go on virtually, but I doubt I am alone in thinking that it's seeing old friends in person that's the true reward of going to a conference.

Had I gone, both of the papers I would have given would have at least touched on my old claim that King Alfred of Wessex (871-99) was a collector of books. So I was delighted, this week to come across this early twentieth-century bookplate that suggests much the same thing.

Located on the inside front board of a book from 1902, Charles L. Fifield's bookplate has a certain rustic charm, even if artistic appeal may not be its chief attraction. It may be the case that Fifield himself provided the drawing that the plate was made from. The little poem at the bottom of the plate says:

King Alfred, deep engrossed in book

  Forgot the cakes and let them burn

Remember Thou, the book thou took

  Ought to its owner soon return.

Of course, this refers to the legend of "Alfred and the Cakes," the most popular story ever told about Alfred: at his fortune's lowest ebb, he took refuge in a herdsman's cottage and was rebuked by the cottager's wife for allowing her cakes to burn when he ought to have been watching them. Almost certainly the story is apocryphal; it appears to suggest that Alfred as a "lord" of his people (Old English hlaf-weard = loaf-guard) had failed, and needed to be reminded of his duties: in the earliest records of the tales, it is not cakes that burn, but loaves (Latin: panis, breads). 

In most retellings of the story, Alfred is distracted by military worries about how to regain control of his kingdom, nearly overrun by the Danes; this bookplate's little poem is the first time that I can recall the suggestion that he was distracted by his reading.

Though some of my readers may recognize it, it may be worth explaining that the Old English phrase on the bookplate, "Alfred Mec heht gewyrcan" is the text on the Alfred Jewel, one of the great treasures surviving from late ninth-century England, often associated with Alfred's literary and book-producing activities.  

It's a delight to add this little homage to Alfred to my own collection of books, where it can also serve as a reminder, perhaps, for me to take an extra bit of care with my pandemic baking. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Mini-Catalogue Monday 204: Leaves, Fragments, and Archives

One of the things I never quite imagined when I left academia for the word of selling rare (and not-so-rare) books was that I would come across material that can only be described as archives. In my case these have always still been small things (at least so far), nothing that can't fit in a single box, for example, even if sometimes it has been a fairly large box.

Of course, when I work with medieval fragments, I always commit to keeping fragments together whenever I can, and the same is true with this kind of archive: splitting things up that belong together just doesn't seem quite right.

Anyway, there's a handful of such lots or small archives in my newest little catalogue, number 204.  The one I want to talk about in this blog is one I was particular glad to find.

The archive itself is quite small, only five items. Two are books, and three are pieces of artwork. All are signed by the well known New Yorker cartoonist Ed Fisher, who is an especially interesting figure for me because of my interests in both medievalism and comics. The books are Ed Fisher's Domesday Book (1961) and Ed Fisher's First Folio (1959). Even the titles exhibit a kind of medievalism, and many of the cartoons inside them do as well.

But these are New Yorker cartoons, or at least ones in the New Yorker mode, so they always comment on contemporary matters as well. But I love the medievalism of this cartoon depicting a stained glass window--with air conditioner:

And the alien invader confronting the armored car in the following cartoon certainly makes some visual references to the medieval suit of armor:

But as much as I like those two cartoons, it is the depiction of the constellations over Times Square that I find most wonderful here. In this one, Fisher's reference in the past is perhaps the classical world, rather than the Middle Ages, but what an iconic cartoon for 1950s New York!

And that's the thing about archives, too: they are always a reminder that collections are more than the sum of their parts: the juxtaposition of past and present in these three cartoons is augmented, somehow, by their juxtaposition with one another. And that's why it seems important to keep them together.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Printed to look like script, 1708.

1708 Obligation bond,
in Latin and English

Naturally, when the printing press first appeared, the newly cut types were intended to look like letters. Since, until that time, manuscript letters were practically the only letters anyone knew, of course early printed books ended up looking visibly similar to manuscripts. 

On the obligation bond shown here, dating from 1708, the printed text is also intended to look like manuscript letters, but for a manifestly different reason. Here, the printed portion of the document is supposed to look like a manuscript, and--implicitly, at least--a typeset version (with more type-like letters) would not be as acceptable. 

Part-printed documents had made use of conventional typesetting for some time before this, at least in some contexts, but for one reason or another, the visual look and feel of this kind of document seems to have still benefitted from this script-like presentation. 

There are other observations we might make: it looks to me like there is a plate mark around the edge of the paper here, so it seems best to suggest that the printed portions of this bond were made from an engraving, rather than from a woodcut.

I'm not sure if it can be seen readily here, but each of the two men named Richard Thaier who seals this document (father and son), seems to use the very same seal, which features an anchor. 

It's just a simple document, but interesting, even so.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

A French document recycled as a pouch, pocket, or wallet

It's been a long time since I've posted anything here on the Chancery Hill Books blog: it's been a strange few months of Covid isolation, and while I've been (fortunately) able to find a few things to buy, I haven't had much motivation for writing.  But there's almost always something to share, even if it's small.

1629 French document on vellum.

The item I wanted to show today is a little French document, roughly eight inches by ten when folded. It is somewhat difficult to read because of aging, the translucence of the vellum, and the rapid French cursive documentary script of the time, but a later hand has at least given us the date: 13 mars 1629. Probably, this is an eighteenth-century hand; at the least, it probably indicates something about the date this document was recycled.

In form, this was originally a little single-fold booklet, four pages, with writing on all four. As it stands now, this is its current from, too: though an additional horizontal fold occurred at some point, almost at the half-way line, visible in the image only as a darker line at about the tenth line of writing. 

Documents like this must have been extraordinarily common in seventeenth-century France: they can only be described as common today, although this one is obviously very close to 400 years old. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (perhaps with a peak after the Revolution) such vellum documents were frequently recycled in bookbindings, as wrappers or spine strips or covers for card boards.

The only evidence for the recycled use of this document however, is a series of small holes at the top and bottom margins of the document:

Note the pierced holes at bottom margins.

These holes go right across the top and bottom margins and across both leaves of this little bifold: at first glance, they might be mistaken for the pricking holes so often used to rule lines on vellum in medieval manuscripts. But, of course, the lines that could be ruled from these holes would be vertical here, rather than horizontal.

And these holes are not spaced particularly evenly, and they were certainly made after the sheet was folded: the simplest explanation is that these were sewing holes, and that this sheet was once sewn up to be used as a pouch or wallet, presumably to hold important papers or documents. 

Perhaps this says more about me than about such documents, but I find the evidence of recycling more fascinating here than the original document itself. 

Friday, May 8, 2020

Mini-Catalogue: Kalamazoo list

Five fragmentary bifolia.
This is the week where, in a normal year, I would be set up at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, where medieval scholars annually meet in a free-for-all of conference papers, book-room purchases, and dancing. Well--not all the attenders participate in all three, and one suspects that many others would add drinking to the list of must-do activities. The plastic glasses of boxed wine are legendary.

This year, of course, the conference has been cancelled, and so I've put together a little catalogue of the items I've gathered during the past year that I would have otherwise been delighted to show off at Kalamazoo. It includes books on medieval texts and medieval topics from 1596 to 1773; binding fragments from early printed books and from even earlier manuscripts, and a handful of manuscript leaves cut and dispersed fifty or more years ago. 

Here's a link to the catalogue, for those who might want to look at it.

One of my favorite items is shown in the illustrations here: a group of incunabula leaves that were all used in a binding (or, possibly, a set of related bindings). Although they derive from at least four or five separate incunabula, their use together seems clear, and they may thus indicate the contents (or part of the contents) of a long-lost incunabula-period sammelband. 

Part of the colophon on one of the leaves above.
Note the date in the last line: Mccccxcviii

The detective work to identify the incunabula books that these leaves derive from was, as always, a lot of fun.  

Well, the results were fun, but like all detective work, those results came after a certain amount of tedious and repetitive labor. They all date from 1497 to about 1500, and they are all quite scarce, with only about 20 or so copies recorded in the online bibliographies of incunabula. To me, since they are before 1500, they are every bit as much "medieval" as manuscript fragments.

I got interested in binding fragments because of my interest in medieval manuscripts, but I've come to understand that these early printed binding fragments can be just as interesting, just as important, and they are--if anything--more fragile and at-risk than manuscript fragments. But as far as I know, the big projects of fragmentology that are ongoing pay little or no attention to such printed fragments. 

Medievalists, I hope, can learn to care as much about printed medieval books and fragments as they do about manuscript ones.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Looking for Toilet Paper? My Search for a Toilet Paper Almanac

Western Reserve Almanac for 1826,
from Painesville, OH. 
I was at a local grocery store today, where the shelves intended for rolls of toilet paper were empty. The urge to stockpile (I won't say hoard) toilet paper at a time of crisis seems to me like a strikingly 21st-century phenomenon: once upon a time, of course, there was no such thing as toilet paper, and still people managed. Many types of things, of course, were used for the purpose in the past, but this is a blog about books, and it's books I am writing about today. Specifically, the kinds of books that might once have been intended for the outhouse.

I am young enough—and I’ve lived in the right parts of the country—that I don’t think I’ve ever been required to use an honest-to-goodness outhouse. Some of the unimproved state parks I visited in my childhood had facilities that came close, but none were strictly outhouses in the old fashioned sense. 

The kind of outhouse I mean is a building—an outbuilding—that contains the most basic sort of hole-in-the-ground privy, and it’s a necessary adjunct to almost any house with no indoor plumbing, although the judicious use of chamber pots can also serve—as long as there is provision made for a place to empty them. For the most part, outhouses fell out of use in this country (the US, I mean) in the twentieth century, as wells with electric pumps allowed indoor plumbing in even the most rural homes, as long as (as I’ve heard it said) they “had the electric.” 

The comfort of American outhouses was surely improved in the late nineteenth century with the invention and widespread marketing of the humble toilet paper roll. There was no dedicated product for wiping one’s bottom before the 1850s, and for all the centuries of earlier time, other things must have been used. At least in this country, printed paper pages were often recycled in outhouses, and it became traditional for ephemeral printed almanacs, once their time of relevance had passed, to be used in outhouses (in the twentieth century, mail order catalogues were also often used). Perhaps this says more about me as a book collector than I should publicly reveal, but I recently set about trying to see if I could find such an old almanac—not one that had actually been used as toilet paper, but one that had narrowly escaped such a fate. 

Annual printed almanacs have been around for hundreds of years, and the direct ancestors of our modern almanacs can be found among the earliest printed books of the incunable period. Then and now, such books have been inherently ephemeral, and at the end of each year, they become largely useless and purposeless. As a result, some early almanacs are often quite rare today, precisely because there was no motive for keeping them.

How early it was that almanacs began to be used as toilet paper may not be easy to determine, however. The most popular traditional almanac these days (The Farmers’ Almanac, also often known as The Old Farmers’Almanac) has a pre-drilled hole in the upper left corner of the book, and their own website indicates that such holes have been drilled since 1919, precisely to allow the book to be hung from a nail, "in homes, barns, and outhouses." Many nineteenth-century almanacs I’ve encountered were bound with string, often leaving a loop in the upper corner, also presumably for hanging the book on a nail. But would it be possible for me to find an almanac that had actually been hung in an outhouse, or at least intended for such a purpose?

For years, I have been interested in the ways books and manuscripts have been recycled. The recycling of an almanac as toilet paper is surely among the lowest of such recyclings: we know that a book has become its most useless and least valued when it is put to use as toilet paper. I have been fortunate to have, in my own collection, some almanac or calendar scraps from the 1500s, recycled in later book-bindings, as also happened with some medieval manuscripts; the recycling of more recent books has a natural appeal to me, an extension of one of my own well-established collecting areas. That such recycling would have me that enjoys the low scatological humor of Chaucer’s Miller’s and Summoner’s Tales.

A portion of a broadside calendar or almanac, recycled in a book-binding,
printed by Ioannes Schott, and tentatively dated to 1503.
Note the notices of eclipses, at least and right hand sides here.

But the question has been, of course, how could one ever know about a use intended for a recycled almanac that was never put into practice? The most obvious sorts of evidence are ambiguous at best. If an almanac was to be hung in the outhouse by a loop of string in the binding, it was just as likely to have been hung on a nail or hook in a home or cabin. If pages could be ripped out to be used as individual sheets of outhouse paper, it is equally true that old almanacs might suffer similar losses for many other reasons. Experience will quickly show that many old almanacs are today incomplete, with missing pages and often with missing covers (if they had covers in the first place). Neither a hanging loop nor the loss of pages can really make the case fully.

1828 Western Farmer's Almanac, string bound with
the 1826 Western Reserve Almanac. Not that the 1826
book is incomplete at the end.
But I think that all hope is not lost. The most ephemeral of nineteenth-century American almanacs (and earlier ones as well), were small objects, roughly four inches by seven, and often only 24 or 48 pages in length. One guesses that when such a book was finally hung on an outhouse peg, its remaining useful life was not very long. Once in a while, however, you can find a group of almanacs from different years that have been sewn together, often with pages missing. One reason to sew almanacs together, it would seem, would be to preserve them for the future: since many almanacs had owners’ notes of one sort or another within them, there might be a motive for keeping them, and for keeping them together. But when pages are missing, it’s easy to imagine that either the preservation motive did not last long, or that there was another motive from the start. It is at least possible, of course, that several old almanacs would be sewn together so that there would be a larger supply of pages all on one loop or one nail. 

Close-up of the stab-sewn binding of the Western Farmer's Almanac,
with the hanging loop. The darker/black thread binds
the two books together.
It is probably impossible to be certain if any single almanac or sewn-together group had truly been intended, by a past owner, for the outhouse nail. But when we find almanacs from various years sewn together, with pages missing from some or all of them, I think we have the best candidates for such almanacs that we are likely to find. And a knowledge of the contents of most old almanacs might give us an additional clue. The usual form of an almanac includes a month-by-month calendar at the beginning, usually taking up twelve pages; the rest of the book often included reading or reference material. The reading material might be humorous, didactic, topical, or political, but the key point here is that the calendar section was, perhaps, the section most likely to go completely out of date. If the missing pages from a string-bound collection of almanacs are concentrated in the calendar sections, then we might guess that the less ephemeral sections were being preserved for bathroom reading, and the calendar pages being used up first.

1839 Temperance Almanac,
one of six almanacs from 1839 to
1845, roughly bound together. 
In the end, I have been able to find a couple examples of such collections. They are a powerful reminder of how literally it can sometimes be said that one person’s trash in another one’s treasure. They remind us of how lowly some books have been valued, with some being tossed, page by soiled page, into the cess-pit. And other books, equally little valued may have only narrowly avoided such an end.

All truly ephemeral books are strange survivals, if they survive at all. By definition, ephemeral materials go out of date, and—at least for a time—there is no clear reason to keep or preserve them. The typical fate of the ephemeral is thus always loss or destruction. Almanacs, however seem to have long been understood as having had an especially typical or common secondary use as outhouse supplies, destined for the pit. Other than fire itself, I can think of no more metaphorically hellish (or perhaps merely Chaucerian) fate for a book, although until the invention of dedicated toilet paper, that fate must have found literally millions of old almanacs. If being treasured in a library or collection is, by contrast, a kind of heavenly afterlife for an ephemeral book, I am fascinated by the tantalizing possibility that some of the old almanacs I’ve collected might have stood at the brink of both such fates in their time.

It is one thing, I think, to collect what everyone knows is valuable: when a collector or a library pays hundreds or thousands of dollars for a book, they do so (almost always) because the book in question has long been safe from the pit, and is now merely passing from one treasured collection to another. But to pull a book from the brink, that’s something else entirely, and it can only be done, I think, by collecting the most humble and (almost) useless of books.

From the 1839-1845 bound volume.

1844 Almanac from the same volume, lacking title page;
see torn stub at top center.