The living book
Making a book one's own in the Renaissance
The living book: Making a book one's own in the Renaissance
Introduction: the book as an object. A discreet witness of renaissance culture
The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the middle of the 15th century transformed Europe. In the space of a few months it was suddenly possible to produce not just one copy of a book, but many hundreds or even thousands of copies. Thanks to this new technology more books were produced in fifty years (between 1450 and 1500) than over the previous thousand years. This exponential rise had a profound impact. The price of volumes fell dramatically and even those on a modest income could buy books.
However, the quantity of books that came off the presses soon saturated the market. Printers had to find new ways of distributing their output. To resolve this problem, a large network of distribution was set in place, a network organised by someone who would become the key figure in the book world over the following centuries: the bookseller. He was at the heart of book production and organised the export of books throughout Europe and beyond.
The bookseller therefore undertook many different roles. He was for most people mainly a retailer, selling volumes to local readers in shops scattered throughout Europe. But he sometimes also played the part of a merchant, organising the wholesale distribution of a printed edition on a regional, national or international basis. Finally, he could also oversee the production of editions as a publisher. He financed the production in a print run, chose which texts to publish and instructed printers on how he wanted the editions produced.
A sophisticated system was soon set up that allowed books to be sent rapidly throughout Europe. Editions printed in cities such as Basel or Venice were quickly available in Parisian shops from the early 16th century onwards.
The heritage collection of the Centre Culturel Irlandais is a striking example of this blend of books from many different print centres with imprints that originated from all over the continent.
The journeys undertaken by the volumes - from the workshops in which they were produced to their final destination in the library - have left traces on the books themselves. If we carefully examine each copy and proceed in much the same way as a detective seeking to solve a mystery, it is possible to identify clues that enable us to understand the volume’s history.
Beyond the simple question of each volume’s provenance, each copy has details that bear witness to the way in which each reader sought to personalise his books. The personalisation of books started when the volumes were still in the bookseller’s shop – often to make the books more attractive to potential buyers - and carried on when a new owner sought to appropriate the book, making it a unique object.
The history of the volumes also illustrates how the 16th-century reader conceived his books. After an edition was printed, an owner could still adapt his copy to suit his purposes. The way he treated his books offers clues as to what he thought about its contents and how he wished to organise the knowledge it contained.
Finally, the annotations, additions and ownership marks reveal who owned each type of book and how they wished to use them.
After each job was finished, there were neat stacks of sheets piled high in the printer’s workshop. These offered potential readers hundreds of identical copies of the same texts, presented in the exact same layout and pagination.
Yet, despite this apparent uniformity, each volume rapidly assumed characteristics that made it unique. To sell their production, the publisher who was generally also a bookseller, distributed the sheets through a network of retail booksellers who offered the text for sale in their shops. During this transitional process, and before buyers had even had the chance of reading them, the books began to evolve in order to make them more attractive and maximise sales.
In order to do this, booksellers sought to make their books as up-to-date and complete as possible – even if this meant amending their title pages.
Bindings were also prepared for buyers. Unlike today, bindings were generally added once the book had been purchased, often in the shop where it had been acquired. As a result each binding was unique and could vary considerably in form, cost and quality. Close observation of some bindings reveals extraordinary details, such as the reuse of sheets printed many years earlier that had lost all commercial value.
Buying and personalising
Once a book was bought, the process of personalising the object began. Each owner sought to make his volume unique: he adapted the binding to suit his taste, made it more easy to use, and harmonised its appearance to fit in with his library.
During the Renaissance, it was common practice to inscribe the author’s name and the title on the edge in order to facilitate its identification on the shelves as, in this period, books were commonly arranged with their edges out.
One also sought to appropriate the book, often by inserting a possessor’s mark: a handwritten note, stamped coats of arms on the front and back boards, a stamp or a printed bookplate, often stuck on the inside of the front board.
This process of transformation of the book was not the preserve of the first owner. The life of a book was a long one and volumes passed from hand to hand through purchase, gift or bequest. As is shown by the handwritten annotation on one of the library’s book, this transmission could even be done via book auctions.
The long life of each copy and the attempts of successive owners to appropriate volumes could have surprising effects. The names of previous custodians were crossed out, the sections of the title page on which a signature had been apposed were cut out, even if this meant damaging the book. Similar attempts to remove owners’ marks affected the binding and helped prepare the volume’s integration into a new library.
These interventions could have radical consequences. In a large collection a book could easily find itself isolated on the shelves. So, to make it easier to find, the edition could be attached to another work on a similar theme.
Organisation and use
The process of personalising a book often involved thinking about how the owner wished to use it. This approach had a profound impact on the life of a volume: it determined where the book was kept, how it was presented but also its physical form.
New owners did not hesitate to replace old bindings in order to be able to add other editions to create a composite volume of similar texts. The volumes thus created, generally known in English by the German word Sammelband, were for the most part created by owners who sought simply to cater for their own needs either when purchasing new editions or when acquiring them at some later point in the copies’ lives. They are an extraordinary source for understanding readers and their practices during the Renaissance and show how one could seek to organise texts in order to make them more accessible and easier to use.
The volume made up of two books seen in the previous section was, after a fashion, a primitive type of Sammelband.
Normally when these volumes were created they received a new purpose-made binding, even if sometimes this made it difficult when seeking a generic title to describe the whole volume, as is demonstrated by this volume bearing the title “Various Books” on its spine.
In other cases, more of an effort was made to describe the contents.
These volumes reveal that owners could alter the primary purpose of texts by putting them to a use that had not been anticipated by the author or the publisher.
The owner could also intervene in other ways than just associating different texts to each other. Thus, when buying a book for a precise purpose, one could have blank leaves inserted in order to give more room for personal annotation.
Interacting with the text
The abundance of marginal annotation in a book could have an impact on how the book was bound and prepared for the reader. However, for the most part, interaction with the text was less obvious and was limited to handwritten marginalia on the printed pages of a volume.
In most cases, these readers’ marks are not particularly revealing. Typically, one sought to emphasise the main points developed by the author to help further reference and to make a passage stand out. A reader would score through or underline important words or sentences, sometimes marking them out with a manicule. Such practices show the care with which an edition was read and identify the passages and ideas that were more meaningful for Renaissance readers.
Their reactions are sometimes particularly interesting, not least when they reveal the intellectual and physical context in which the text was being analysed. This copy of Les six livres de la république illustrates how a reader must have had a very different work within reach and how he linked the two works. In some cases one could also go as far as copying out a full page of text on the endleaves.
In certain cases, the annotations help us understand the reader’s point of view, either praising the author and the book or, on the contrary, condemning them – the marginalia showing how this could change radically from one reader to the next.
In the complex religious circumstances of a century that witnessed many polemical and controversial publications, censorship also played an important role and enticed readers to react to the printed text.
Authors and their libraries
The books that are now preserved in the Centre Culturel Irlandais do not come from the original collection of the Irish seminary, known as the « Collège des Irlandais », at the end of the Ancien Régime. That library was seized during the French Revolution and dispersed.
When the College was re-formed after the Restauration, it was simply not possible to locate the lost volumes and, instead, books from a variety of other Parisian libraries – convents, monasteries and other colleges – were given to the institution in order to recreate a library.
This variety of provenances is common in French libraries created thanks to the French Revolution, but this diversity in fact masks an underlying thematic coherence. Over 20% of the sixteenth-century books bear the handwritten annotation « Liber bibliothecae Anglorum Parisiis » on the title page or a printed ex-libris that indicated that they had initially belonged to the English seminary in Paris. As a result, a significant proportion of the books either dealt with subject matters and issues related to Britain and Ireland or were printed there.
However, this overall coherence both in terms of theme and provenance should not lead us to overlook other past owners of the books now kept in the collection. Some copies were owned by well-known contemporary figures, often themselves authors. Thus we can point to the Latin edition of an ecclesiastical history owned by Thomas Beauxamis, one of the most prolific French polemicists and theologians of the 16th century.
Sometimes, the provenance indications show that a volume belonged to a large Renaissance library or to owners who played a high-profile political and religious role during the Wars of Religion. And, unknown to today’s scholars, there are also volumes that bear the name of famous literary figures.
Conclusion: the long life of books
After a book was printed, it was continually adapted, amended, annotated, rebound and in a word changed by successive owners.
This long life of each copy of an edition means that today we need to represent their lives with diagrams that show the changes made to the volume and its movement over time.
Here is one such diagram that retraces the successive owners of Summe, by Antonin de Florence, shown in this exhibition.
The 16th-century Parisian Catholic theologian, Henri Mauroy, had the book bound and had his name added. He was followed by Michel Denys who included his name on the title page alongside the price he had paid to acquire the volume.
The copy then made its way into the hands of Antoine de Morry, who served as Henry IV’s counsellor and chaplain, before being integrated into the library of Léonor d’Estampes de Valençay (1589-1651).
After a while, the volume then passed into the ownership of François de Montorcier (1685-1741), who became the director of the Seminary of Foreign Missions of Paris in 1726. At his death, it was bequeathed to the library of the order where it was to stay until the revolutionary confiscations.
After the Revolution, it was added to the library of the Irish College, where it is still today.
Reconstituted thanks to provenance marks of diverse nature, this long journey exemplifies the manner in which each volume owes its existence to the interest and vigilance of successive owners.
It is extraordinary volumes such as this one that can still today be consulted and admired at the Centre Culturel Irlandais.
Exhibition curator: Malcolm Walsby
Historian at the University of Rennes,
Fellow of the Centre Culturel Irlandais in 2016
A small glossary of the exhibition (words with an asterisk in the text):
- Boards: Part of the binding generally in cardboard or wood that encases the sides of the book. They strengthen the binding and protect the printed leaves.
- Bookplate: A printed label added within a book that gives information on the volume’s ownership.
- Copy: A single specimen of a particular edition.
- Edges: The outer sides of the text block formed by the leaves’ thickness when a book is closed. These may be stained in different colours, marbled, gilt, or simply written on.
- Edition: All copies of a book printed at one given time from a single set of type.
- Incunabulum: Name given to a book printed before 1501.
- Manicule: A drawn or printed representation of a hand with an outstretched index finger that was used to attract the attention of the reader and denotes an interesting or important part of the text.
- Provenance: Information on previous owners or users of a book that, taken as a whole, help piece together the history of a volume.
- Stamped coat of arms: A process that decorates the binding with the owner’s coat of arms. The binder heated an engraved design, added gold leaf then stamped the design on the leather that covers the boards.
A decoration added to the binding without any gold tooling or addition of colour is blind stamped.