Rare Book Cataloguing: The Case of the Blurry Page


Sometimes in rare book cataloguing you come across something that requires you to flex you analytical bibliography muscles. It can be amazing what you can gather from the study of the physical form of a particular volume.
In the following case we managed to learn quite a bit about the printing practices in Cologne during the 1470s from the study of one page.


So, one day I was merrily cataloguing CRC Inc.S.16/2 (De excidio Troiae historia. Not printed after 1472) when I turned a page and found this:

Not actually a bad photograph, but a badly printed page. Possibly what is known as a “slur” where the platen (we’ll get into that later) moves during the printing process and causes the ink to smear. But more likely the platen was lowered twice on the same page, whether on a one- or two-pull press is open to debate.

So far, so what. ¯\_(シ)_/¯

Well, it occurred to me that there was only one mis-printed page. In the printing process there will always be a partner page printed on the same sheet, which is then folded. So, I checked the partner of our mis-printed page and found that it wasn’t blurred. This book was a quarto which meant, as I’m sure you’re all thinking, that that was impossible.

Okay, so a lot of jargon there. Let me break this down.

This is a diagram of a hand-pulled press. Showing the frisket, tympan, forme, press stone and the aforementioned platen.

(Public domain image made available by Smithsonian Libraries (AE25.E53X 1851 Plates, t.7, “Imprimerie en caracteres,” plate 15))


  • Frisket: Used to hold the paper in place on the tympan and to mask off areas that you don’t want printed.
  • Tympan: Holds the paper using small pin-like pieces of metal.
  • Forme: The name given to the frame that the type is tightly packed into.
  • Press Stone: The frisket and tympan are folded onto the press stone.
  • Platen: Is the part of the press that applies the pressure to the paper on the forme.


The illustration above is actually a two-pull press. In this case the press is set up for a quarto sheet with four pages to be printed. The stone is rolled under the platen once, the platen is pressed down printing two pages, then it’s lifted and the stone is rolled further in and the platen is lowered again, printing the final two pages.

In the case of a one pull press, the platen is lowered once. If it’s a folio then one page is printed, if it is a quarto then two pages are printed. After it’s printed, the forme is reset with the next page(s) to be printed.

Now the complicated bit.

Let’s talk about formats. Folio, quarto, octavo, etc.

The format of a book is determined by how many pages are printed on a sheet and how many times that sheet is folded.

So, for example, one sheet of paper is printed on both sides, then folded once.

This is a folio. It’s folded once along the y-axis. Giving two leaves or four pages.

 Front of sheet

Back of sheet

The Folger Library has an interesting website that lets you play with Shakespeare’s First Folio where you can assemble sheets into “gatherings”.

This is a quarto. It’s folded twice. First the y-axis, then the x-axis giving four leaves or eight pages.

 Front of sheet

Back of sheet

Check out this video to see how it’s done.

Octavos are folded three times, giving you eight leaves or sixteen pages. And so on …

Okay now that we’re all experts on formats, let’s stampede over to chain lines.


Chain lines are formed during the paper making process. The mould used to make the paper is dipped into a vat of pulped linen and the water is sieved away leaving behind an impression of the mould.

Check here to see the process.

The mould consists of wire sewn onto supports, it’s these supports that leave the chain line impressions.

Here’s a paper mould.

The thicker, vertical lines you can see are imparted onto the sheet of paper during the paper-making process and will end up looking something like this.

Chain lines help to determine the format of a volume. With a folio the sheet is folded once along the y-axis, therefore the chain lines will be vertical on the page. If there is a watermark (and there isn’t always!) it is placed on the right-hand side of the sheet.

In the example below there’s a watermark on the right-hand sheet and a countermark on the left. When the sheet is folded the chain lines will be vertical and the watermark will be in the centre of the page.



With a quarto the sheet is folded once along the y-axis, then once along the x-axis therefore the chain lines will be horizontal on the page. The watermark will be in the gutter, often difficult to see, especially in tightly bound books.



Phew! Okay, we now have all that knowledge, so here’s why that blurry page is so weird. The chain lines and watermarks in the book show that it is a quarto. And if you remember from before, quartos are printed either two or four pages at a time, so how can there be only one mis-printed page on a sheet? The conjugate page should be mis-printed as well.

When the platen lowered the mis-printed page should have had a mis-printed partner:


If the red page is the mis-printed page, then the green page must be mis-printed because the platen would be lowered on the both at the same time.

No such mis-printed partner existed.

Headaches ensued.

More headaches.

Much sighing.


This volume was printed before 1476, we know this because the rubricator (someone who would emphasise areas of the text with red ink) very kindly dated his rubrication. So, it’s a very early quarto. What if the printer viewed printing a quarto like printing a small folio?

Possibly they used a half sheet and imposed the quarto as a folio, and then printed it a page at a time. That would allow for only one page to be mis-printed. We checked the watermarks and chain lines and established that these were indeed half sheets.

Calls went out on Twitter; colleagues were asked for their opinions. Robert MacLean at the University Glasgow put us on to Karina de la Garza-Gil at the University of Cologne who confirmed that the common practice for Cologne printers at that time was to print quartos in half sheets one page at a time.

All that was left was to work out how it happened.

There is no smearing of the ink, and the first printing is sharp if faint. This makes it unlikely that anything twisted or moved, so perhaps the printer lowered the platen once and changed their mind before lowering it with the required force a second time.

The final mystery: was it a one or two pull press? It would be pure speculation to decide either way. Arguments could be made for either. At this point you really need to be able to read the mind of a printer from five hundred years ago. What we do know is that printing quartos on full sheets on a two-pull press became common a few years after this particular book was printed.

In the end what this does show, is how much information can be gleaned from analysing the physical properties of a book. From one mis-printed page we established the printing practices in Cologne from five hundred years ago.

And that end’s the tale of the blurry page!

Travelling Images: Venetian Illustrated Books 2

This week our Venetian illustrations turn theatrical, with an illustrated copy of the plays of Plautus, and we welcome as guest blogger, the exhibition curator, Laura Moretti, of the University of St. Andrews. 


Titus Maccius Plautus (c.254-184 BC), Comedies, edited by Bernard Saraceni, and Giovanni Pietro Valla. (Venice: Lazzaro de’ Soardi, 1511).  Edinburgh University Library JY 1082.

The comedies by the Roman dramatist Titus Maccius Plautus (c.254-184 BC) were the subjects of a period of rebirth during the course of the fifteenth century. This was due – along with the favor that theatrical plays by Roman authors saw as a genre during the Renaissance – to the fact that twelve comedies by Plautus were rediscovered in the first half of the Quattrocento. Together with the eight already known at the time, the group of twenty comedies came to constitute a fundamental corpus for the theatre in the following decades, being represented with great success in Rome, Milan and Ferrara. They were reworked, modified, and translated into vernacular. Besides being copied in several manuscripts, from the beginning of the 1470s also printed editions started to appear. The texts were edited and commented by various authors, including Giorgio Merula, Ermolao Barbaro, Angelo Poliziano, Giovan Battista Pio, Filippo Beroaldo.

The present edition was published in 1511 by Lazzaro de’ Soardi. Active as a printer in Venice between 1490 and 1517, he published about fifty editions, especially Latin classics, religious texts, and works of ascetic, theological and philosophical character. The commentary by Bernardo Saraceni and Giovanni Pietro Valla had already been published in Venice in 1499 by Simone Bevilacqua. The Soardi edition, though, was the first one fully illustrated, presenting a full-page woodcut of a theatre and numerous woodcuts throughout.


A theatre seen from the viewpoint of the actors

This illustration already appeared in a previous edition of comedies by the Roman dramatist Terentius (c.195/185- c.159? BC), published in 1497 by the same Soardi. It is a rare image of a theatre seen from the unusual point of view of the actors. The audience sits on semicircular stalls, and is dressed in contemporary fashion. One actor is performing at the centre of the scene, while another oneis entering from a lateral door on the right.

The 1511 edition is completed by 316 woodcuts of scenes from the comedies. The illustrations are not designed individually, but composed assembling smaller blocks. The resulting images generally present the names of the characters in scrolls aligned at the top – also repeated underneath – and normally four, but sometimes up to six elements combining: one to six characters, one to two doors, one or tree trees, and one to four thin rectangular floral borders. It is possible to notice many repetitions of the individual elements, although the resulting illustrations are always different.

Detail of illustrations from the comedy Amphitryo

Opening from the comedy Aulularia


The above-mentioned 1497 edition of Terentius also presented woodcuts illustrating the scenes, but they were crafted individually.


From 1497 Lazzaro de’ Soardi’s hand-coloured edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München.



Opening with illustration from 1497 Lazzaro de’ Soardi’s hand-coloured edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München.

These illustrations might look more coherent and better manufactered to our eyes than the ones from the 1511 edition, but in the latter, perhaps less refined and accurate, we can notice some elements of extreme relevance for the history of the printed book. In a period in which the industrialisation of the printing process was still in its infancy, these images represent the sign of a tendency and a way of thinking in terms of reproducibility, reuse, and flexibility.

Something similar, although more elaborated, already appeared in the edition of the comedies by Terentius published in Strasbourg in 1496 by Johannes Grüninger. This particular edition also presented in the titlepage the representation of a “theatre”, and might have inspired Soardi.


Johannes Grüninger’s 1496 edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, Technische Universität Darmstadt.


Titlepage from 1496 Johannes Grüninger’s 1496 edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, Technische Universität Darmstadt.


In the 1551 edition, while the characters often simulate some sort of stage action, the trees and – especially – the doors confer a sense of spacial recession, giving to the illustrations a three-dimensional effect and a stage-like appeareance, even if still pretty schematic. The page is composed presenting the original text in the central section, together with the illustrations, while the commentary unfolds around them.

Title page with previous ownership inscription

The book formed part of the collection of Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), who studied at the University of Edinburgh and was Chair of Moral Philosophy there from 1785. His library included the books of his father Matthew (1717-85), Professor of Mathematics at the same institution. The collection passed into the hands of Dugald’s son Matthew (c.1784-1851), who bequeathed it – along with many of his own books – to the United Service Club in London. In 1910 the whole collection was transferred to the University of Edinburgh. It contains 3,432 titles in some 4,000 volumes, covering many topics, but is particularly strong in political economy, moral philosophy, and mathematics. There are a large number of presentation copies reflecting Dugald’s wide circle of acquaintances and admirers. The younger Matthew Stewart added some early printed books (there are 33 incunabula in the collection) and works on oriental subjects. A signature of a previous owner is visible on the titlepage; the Rare Books staff think it may be an institution – S[ancti] Ip[politi?] … but at the moment I am not able to identify it.

Dr Laura Moretti (University of St Andrews)

Further reading:

Fully digitised copy of the 1511 Lazzaro de’ Soardi’s edition of Plautus comedies, digitised by the Bavarian State Library is available here.http://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/resolve/display/bsb10195815.html

The 1496 Johannes Grüninger’s edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, Technische Universität Darmstadt, is available here.http://tudigit.ulb.tu-darmstadt.de/show/inc-iv-77/0001?sid=094bbe50d4659af0b4134f5d1d57ff78

The 1497 Lazzaro de’ Soardi’s edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München, is available here.http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/0005/bsb00058998/images/index.html?id=00058998&groesser=&fip=eayaxdsydyztsxdsydeayawxdsydsdasqrsxdsydewqxs&no=2&seite=1

The 1499 Simone Bevilacqua’s edition of Plautus comedies, with commentary of Saraceni and Valla, digitised by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München, is available here.http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/0006/bsb00064398/images/

The full catalogue record for the Edinburgh University Library copy is here: https://discovered.ed.ac.uk/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=44UOE_ALMA21104958570002466&context=L&vid=44UOE_VU2&search_scope=default_scope&tab=default_tab&lang=en_US

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

And nor should they in this case! Although the author of the above volume is a Torquemada he is, in fact, Juan de Torquemada, uncle to Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada.

What makes this item interesting then? Well it’s not often the complete provenance of a book is known, especially one dating from 1485, however Questiones evangeliorum tam de tempore quam de sanctis from the Clement Litill collection is one such item.

It was first owned by William Scheves, second Archbishop of St Andrews from 1478 until his death in 1497. He gifted it to the friary library of the Domincans of Edinburgh. It was likely there that the horn title label, on the front of the book was added. This label strongly suggests that the book was held in a lectern library where the book would have been stored on a long, sloped reading desk with the cover upper most.

After the looting of the friaries of Edinburgh in 1559 it found its way into the hands of Clement Litill. His reputation as a collector would have seen the looters making a profit from their salvage of the libraries.

From there it went to the Kirk and Town Council of Edinburgh in 1580 along with the 275 other volumes that Litill bequeathed. This collection formed the first library of the University of Edinburgh, where it has been held ever since.

All this means that since the book was gifted to the Dominicans it has not moved more than a mile for almost five centuries!

Oh Christmas Tree!

Main Library Christmas Tree

Christmas has well and truly arrived at the Main Library with the installation of a 12 foot Christmas tree. This year we decided to use images from the CRC collections to decorate the tree – a selection of images (taken by the Digital Imaging Unit) was printed and library staff crafted them into beautiful paper decorations. The tree was then decorated by Exhibitions Officer, Emma Smith.

There is a poster on display next to the tree explaining what the images are, but if you’re unable to visit you can take a look at them after the jump… Continue reading

Old Books, New Discoveries: The Tale of a Feather

Our blog post today comes from History of the Book student and CRC volunteer Allie Newman.

The University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections (CRC) is home to over 300 examples of Western medieval manuscripts, ranging from single leaves and fragments to large bound tomes. While it can certainly be said that this collection represents some of the oldest material in the library, it cannot be said that everything in the collection has been exhaustively examined, even given the items’ relatively long existences. Despite the great age of the items, they are still producing new discoveries in terms of textual content and physical structure, both of which inform our understanding of their individual histories and book history as a whole. I recently made a very interesting, if very tiny, discovery that could hopefully shed some more light on the medieval scribal and artistic processes.

MS 33, a 15th century illuminated Dutch gradual (or songbook), is a large and somewhat unwieldy volume, and is known as the source of the illuminated piper that graces the logo of the Friends of Edinburgh University Library. The piper is actually part of a richly decorated floral border that surrounds a page of music, further embellished by a large illuminated initial (folio 10 verso).

IMG_2760 Continue reading

Hand-finished Printed Books

Our blog post today comes from History of the Book student and CRC volunteer Allie Newman.

The University of Edinburgh Centre for Research collections holds a veritable treasure trove of early printed books, also known as incunabula or incunables. Numbering over 200 items, the collection houses everything from the apparently mundane to the richly decorated, both in terms of type ornament and colours. Today I would like to showcase Inc.49.2, a delightfully illustrated Bible printed by Anton Koberger in Berlin in 1483, that is a wonderful illustration of a particular period of book history.

inc1.jpgThe advent of the printing press in the West, begun by Gutenberg’s moveable type press in 1440, heralded a new era in book production. Suddenly, instead of taking weeks, months, or even years to copy out a book by hand, books could be produced relatively quickly and in larger numbers by moveable type presses. This naturally put manuscript production into an immediate spiral of decline, eventually leading to the triumph of print over hand-written books… Or did it?

Contrary to popular belief, the two forms of production actually continued to exist side by side for nearly 200 years, printed works only overtaking manuscripts in terms of popularity in the 1600s; even then, a big reason for that overtake was due to the fact that printing a book was just plain cheaper than hand-copying a book, not because manuscripts were seen as inferior or old-fashioned. Evidence of this can be seen in the Koberger Bible, where the pages were printed in such a way that they left space for an artist to later come in and add decorative initials by hand!

inc3 inc2This is not an uncommon practice – it even happens in the Gutenberg Bible, though its initials are much less embellished. Because manuscripts were still somewhat of a status symbol and occupied a position of prestige in the world of books, this hand-finishing was a way of adding legitimacy to the printed book. And it didn’t just happen to initials! This Bible is full of woodblock prints, such as the one below, that, although printed on a press, were later hand-coloured (most likely at an extra cost!).

inc4Hand-finishing of printed text eventually faded away as a widely practiced stage of book production by the late 17th century, for the same reason that manuscripts became the less common form of book: it was just too expensive and time consuming. However, the intersection of manuscript techniques and printing press technology left its mark (literally) on the way we write today- ever wonder why the first line of a new paragraph is indented? Why, to make room for a hand-finished first initial, of course!