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The University of Liverpool incunabula collection

By Niamh Delaney, Assistant Librarian Special Collections, University of Liverpool and MEI Fellow (2019)

The University of Liverpool incunabula collection – comprising 315 editions, in 249 copies has now been entered into the Material Evidence in Incunabula database.

The majority of the incunabula held at the University of Liverpool were acquired thanks to the generosity of donors, during the first half of the 20th century. The largest single donation of incunabula was received in 1900, as part of a larger bequest of 2700 books and 21 medieval and renaissance manuscripts given to the University by Thomas Glazebrook Rylands (1818-1900). The Rylands bequest included 82 incunables, and 80 works printed between 1501 and 1536. To put this in context, prior to this gift University College, Liverpool, which was incorporated by Royal Charter just 9 years earlier, in 1881, owned just one medieval manuscript, and no more than 30 incunabula.

SPEC Inc.Ryl.63/OS: Ptolemy, Cosmographia, Ulm: Lienhart Holle, 1482. An 1872 Quaritch sale of “about a dozen editions” of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia, proved the catalyst for 20 years of careful study of Ptolemy’s work and legacy. Rylands purchased two editions of the Cosmographia from the sale, and was alarmed to discover how egregiously they differed. Later, Rylands referred to this 1482 edition as “the most reliable”.

Thomas Glazebrook Rylands was a wire manufacturer by trade, but in his free time he studiously pursued a wide-range of scholarly interests, which included early cartography and astronomy, meteorology, optics, natural history and archaeology. It is no surprise, then, that the incunabula he left to the University of Liverpool are particularly strong in early astronomical and cosmological works, including no fewer than three copies of Ptolemy’s Geographia a book close to Rylands’ heart. You can find out a little more about Rylands, his books, and the ways in which he put his incunabula to use, in this online exhibition.

Rylands’ interest in early astronomy has helped to ensure that the best represented printer in the University of Liverpool incunabula collection is Erhard Ratdolt (1447?-1527). Ratdolt specialised early on in his career in the publication of scientific and mathematical works, and printed an especially large number of astrological and astronomical texts. He was an innovative printer, particularly in his use of diagrams and colour printing, as well as his experimentations with layout and typography:

SPEC Inc.Ryl.08: Leopoldus de Austria, Compilatio de astrorum scientia, Augsburg: Erhard Ratdolt, 1489.
SPEC Inc.Ryl.06: Firmin de Beauval, De mutatione aeris, Venice: Ratdolt, 1485. This is the additional leaf bearing Ratdolt’s large printing device, dating from his Augsburg period (1486-).

Books printed by Ratdolt  in the University of Liverpool incunabula collection include a copy of his 1490 edition of Pierre d’Ailly, Concordantia astronomiae cum theologia signed by Angelo Poliziano (SPEC Inc.Ryl.20); and the curious SPEC Inc.Ryl.06 – a copy of Ratdolt’s 1485 edition of Firmin de Beauval’s De mutatione aeris (ISTC, if00191300) with two unexpected additions: a final leaf, bearing Ratdolt’s Augsburg device, and a single leaf of Alchabitius, Libellus isagogicus, also printed by Ratdolt in Venice, in 1485 (ISTC, ia00363000) and bound-in between b8 and c1 of De mutatione aeris.

After Thomas Glazebrook Rylands’ bequest, the next largest donation of incunabula was given to the University by Sir Charles Sydney Jones (1872-1947). A Liverpool politician and businessman, and an important benefactor to University more generally, Jones was the driving force behind the establishment of a Department of Education at the University. He had high aims for the Department, and surviving correspondence makes it clear that he gave incunabula, and the funds to buy incunabula, because he understood that a properly furnished library would be a vital constituent in the realisation of those world-leading aims.

The books donated by Jones are divided into three categories: “D” – those which came from his own personal collection of incunabula, 14 volumes, largely religious texts and histories, most of which were donated in 1945, but with purchase dates beginning in the 1910s. “E” – those for which he provided the funds to enable the University to purchase for the establishment of the Department of Education: 22 volumes of Latin and Greek language, grammar, writing, oration etc., primarily acquired in the early 1920s. And “F” – 10 volumes on a range of subjects purchased by the University in the 1950s after Jones’s death, using money he left for this purpose.

SPEC Inc.CSJ.D14: Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum, Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493. The inscriptions of the Bardi family of Florentine merchants.

The Jones incunabula collection is where we find some of the most beautiful books in the University’s collection, including the oldest complete printed book in the University of Liverpool collections: Cicero’s De officiis, printed by Fust and Schoeffer, 1465 (ISTC, ic00575000). Our copy, which is printed on vellum, was purchased by the University of Liverpool in 1954, from the sale of Knowsley Hall Library. Other previous owners of the book include Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843), and the book was rebound by Sydney Morris Cockerell in October 1977 (SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10):

SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10: Cicero, De officiis, Fust and Schoeffer, 1465.

You can find out a bit more about the incunabula and early printed books donated to the University of Liverpool by Charles Sydney Jones in this blog post.

Amongst a number of small, early donations of incunabula to the University are 14 books gifted by the sugar merchant and philanthropist Sir Henry Tate (1819-1899) in the mid-1890s. The 14 incunables donated by Tate include a sammelband, with the bookplate and armorial binding of Joachim Gomez de la Cortina Morante (1808-1868) (Inc.Tate.06); a book inscribed by Lorenzo Lampugnani (1458-1527), Augustinian monk in the monastery of St. Maria Inconorata in Milan (Inc.Tate.07); a Nuremberg Chronicle previously owned by Josiah Spode (Inc.Tate.14/OS), and books with the marks of two great incunabula collections – Buxheim and Heber. A fund set up by Tate was also used for the purchase of incunabula (amongst other things) after his death – making him another significant figure in the development of the University of Liverpool’s early printed book collections.

Between 1915 and 1917, John William Hughes (-1917), who was a shareholder in the Liverpool shipping company T&J Harrisons, donated 8 incunabula to the University. This fascinating small collection is worthy of mention, as it includes a number of highly decorated books, and books with early provenance:

SPEC Inc.JWH.07/OS: Decretales, cum glossa, Mainz: Peter Schoeffer, 1473.
SPEC Inc.JWH.08/OS: Gratian, Decretum: Strasbourg: Heinrich Eggestein, 1472. With the inscription of the Benedictine monastery of Saint Emmeram in Regensburg. The book is bound in blind tooled pigskin over wooden boards. The coat of arms visible in this image are as yet unidentified.

The last significant donation of incunabula came to the University in 1969, when Liverpool-born founder of the Argosy and Sundial circulating libraries, Robert George Morton (1880-1973) donated his personal library to the University. Morton’s library contained 14 incunabula, including a 1496 copy of Scriptores rei rustica which isin an early English binding and bears the inscription of the English scholar William Grocyn (1446-1519) (SPEC Inc.RGM.08); and, perhaps betraying Morton’s professional background, a number of books from institutional (Biblioteca Civica Bertoliana, William Blades Library, St Bride Foundation, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek), as well as private, libraries (Sunderland, Sussex, Syston Park).

SPEC Inc.RGM.09: Thomas Aquinas, Expositio in Job, Conrad Fyner, 1474. An inscription on the first leaf reads: “Mon[aste]rij Montis S: Georgij 1652”. On leaf [5] recto, two painted shields bearing respectively the arms of the monastery (St George’s cross) and of the abbot Caspar Augsburger (a watering-can), Abbot of St Georgenberg (1469-91).
SPEC Inc.G09/A: Herbarius latinus, Vincenza: Leonardus Achates and Gulielmus de Papia, 1491. With annotations in a Glagolitic script. This book was donated to the University by Thomas Comber (1837-1902), who worked on the etymology of plant names.

The incunabula held at the University of Liverpool have exactly the range of provenance features you might expect from books that have led long, varied and interesting lives. They are bound in wooden boards, pigskin, parchment and buckram; inscribed, annotated, washed and effaced; illuminated, drawn-in, stamped, rebound and used as waste. In the course of our work with these books we have been able to place, date and put names to large numbers of these marks. But the work is far from complete, and we are always interested to hear from anyone out there who would like to correct or add to the story we have been able to tell so far.

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