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The living book

Making a book one's own in the Renaissance

The living book: Making a book one's own in the Renaissance

Inside a 17th-century bookshop
Inside a 17th-century bookshop

Drawing on paper, Dirck and Salomon de Bray, Rijkmuseum RP-T-1884-A-290

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.

The European production of printed books in the 15th and 16th centuries
The European production of printed books in the 15th and 16th centuries
A printer’s workshop in the 16th century, from the printer’s mark of Josse Bade, Parisian bookseller
A printer’s workshop in the 16th century, from the printer’s mark of Josse Bade, Parisian bookseller

Preparing books

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.

A date updated by the bookseller
A date updated by the bookseller

This Saxon chronicle, divided into a number of different parts, tells of the most important events that occurred between 1500 and 1590 (when the work was published). One of the attractive features of the text was its contemporaneous nature, but this asset diminished from one year to the next. Aware of this, the publisher made the most of the Latin form of the date on the title page by adding “II” to “update” the book, thus changing the publication date from 1590 to 1592.

D. Chyträus, Chronicon Saxoniae, Rostock: Stephan Möllemann for Lorenz Albrecht in Lübeck, 1590, USTC 628487 – B 992.

Updating a printed book
Updating a printed book

Over the years that followed the publication, the author and the bookseller sold additional brochures that told of the most recent events. Laid out in the same format as the original book, these addenda had commercial advantages. They could, as is the case here, be bound with the original text and thus either be sold to those who had already bought the chronicle or encourage additional sales of the entire collection.

D. Chyträus, Chronicon anni proximè elapsi M D XCIII, s.l., s.n., 1594, USTC 622263 – B 993.

Unique binding waste
Unique binding waste

Sheets of texts that were thought to be either outdated or without interest were used to strengthen bindings. They represent a fascinating source of information. Here, we have an English book of popular piety. This type of edition was common during the Renaissance and many thousands of copies were sold. But their very popularity makes these books rare today: they were used until they fell apart. This fragment is the only known surviving copy.

Binding of F. Baudouin, Responsio ad Calvinum et Bezam, Cologne: Werner Richwin, 1564, USTC 690842 – B 91.

© Damien Boisson-Berçu

A hidden incunabulum
A hidden incunabulum

Fragments of the library’s oldest edition, an incunabulum, are hidden within the binding of this book. Printed in Basel in 1479, this edition of Saint Augustin’s City of God had lost its value by the mid-sixteenth century. The page shown here illustrates the contemporary practice of illuminating the page with handdrawn ornate initials – a practice that was sometimes problematic as exemplified here where the illuminator has erroneously inserted a N rather than an I.

Binding of J. Girard, Stichostratia epigrammaton centuriae quinque, Lyon: Macé Bonhomme, 1552, USTC 151204 – B 363.

© Damien Boisson-Berçu

The distribution network for books
The distribution network for books
U. Zwingli, Opus articulorum, Zurich: C. Froschauer, 1535
U. Zwingli, Opus articulorum, Zurich: C. Froschauer, 1535

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.

A book auction
A book auction

The Latin inscription inserted at the top of this volume’s flyleaf shows the diversity of ways in which a book could be acquired during the Renaissance. Readers did not always have to buy their volumes in bookshops. This annotation indicated that the book was bought for 50 sous in 1620 “in publica auctione librorum” – an auction that took place after the death of its first owner.

J. du Tillet, Recueil des Roys de France, Paris: Adrian Perier, 1607, USTC 6000696 – C 57.

Pride cometh before a fall
Pride cometh before a fall

This copy bears witness to the desire of successive owners to stamp their mark on a book. The volume belonged to the controversial theologian Henri Mauroy in the 16th century, as is shown by the name on the binding. But when the book was bought by bishop Léonor d’Estampes de Valençay, he had the name obliterated, apposing instead his coat of arms… His pride, however, must have been tempered by the fact that in his haste to appropriate the book, the arms were placed upside down…

Antonin of Florence, Summe, Lyon: Jacques Mareschal for Vincent de Portonariis, 1529, USTC 146085 – D 6.

Organising and preserving
Organising and preserving

This volume is in fact made up of two books held together by a piece of string. By this simple device, the owner sought to keep the texts together on his shelves. This cheap, rudimentary Sammelband had another advantage: it preserved the books for future generations. The efficiency of the system is demonstrated by the fact that the second work is the only surviving copy of this edition.

J.-C. Boulenger, Examen des lieux alleguez par du Plessis Mornay contre la messe, & Defense des lieux alleguez par du Plessis Mornay, Paris: Claude Morel, 1598, USTC 16806 & 73701 – B 88.

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A volume of the library bearing the helpful title “Various Books” on its spine
A volume of the library bearing the helpful title “Various Books” on its spine

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.

Making the content accessible
Making the content accessible

This volume contains two editions published by the same workshop 25 years apart. It is the intervention of one of the owners that makes this copy particularly interesting. The content of the book could not be easily inscribed on the book edge, as was traditionally the case. To solve this problem, the owner stuck in an additional label that could be unfolded to make it more visible.

P. Bembo, Epistolarum familiarum libri sex, Cologne: G. Cholinus, 1582, USTC 683579 and J. Sadoleto, Epistolarum libri sexdecim, Cologne: P. Cholinus, 1608, USTC 2053862 – B 1118.

List of words to encourage a more accurate pronunciation of Latin, written in book A 358 of the Old Library’s collection
List of words to encourage a more accurate pronunciation of Latin, written in book A 358 of the Old Library’s collection

© Damien Boisson-Berçu


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.


An unexpected use of a text
An unexpected use of a text

This work contained virulent criticism of the behaviour of the Spanish in the Americas and was reprinted in the context of the wars of the League during which Spanish troops fought on French soil. However, this polemical context is lost when one considers the way the text was used by its German owner. Bound with a book on the Italian language, the text was used as an educational tool to learn French.

Bartolomé de las Casas, Histoire admirable des horribles insolences, cruautez, et tyrannies exercees par les Espagnols és Indes Occidentales, Lyon: s.n., 1594, USTC 37555 – A 358.

Annotating and personalising
Annotating and personalising

As soon as this edition was acquired, probably by a student, this copy of a classical text was designed to be annotated. Blank leaves were added to enable the owner to insert copious annotations that spilled over from the large blank margins. Thanks to these notes, the volume became unique and valuable: it bears witness to the manner in which Aristotle’s texts were studied during the Renaissance.

Aristotle, Ad Nichomacum filium de moribus, Paris: Denis du Pré, 1569, USTC 199018 – Cote B 931.

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Example of a typical annotation: a manicule, highlighted text and the three main concepts — faith, hope and charity — found in the text
Example of a typical annotation: a manicule, highlighted text and the three main concepts — faith, hope and charity — found in the text

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.

English poem added to the endleaf by a reader, book B 923 of the Old Library’s collection
English poem added to the endleaf by a reader, book B 923 of the Old Library’s collection
Political theory and poetry
Political theory and poetry

Annotations are often useful clues to understanding how books were read and sometimes even tell us of the context in which they were understood. Here, we see a surprising mixture of Bodin’s political theory and the poetry of Ronsard. The verse copied at the bottom of the page reads: “Il faict bon disputer des choses naturelles / Des foudres et des vents, des neges et des gresles / Et non pas de la foy dont il ne faut doubter / Seullement il faut croyre et non en disputer”.

J. Bodin, Les six livres de la république, Paris: Jacques du Puys, 1578, USTC 6034 – Cote D 114.


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.


Reading as a path to paradise or hell
Reading as a path to paradise or hell

Religious controversies in a Europe divided by the rise of Protestantism created passionate disagreements. A Protestant owner warned in his marginalia that reading and believing this book would send the reader to hell. A later Catholic owner struck out the last term by inserting the word paradise instead (“Who so redethe thys and belewethe yt, yt wyll brynge him to hell”).

S. Gardiner, A detection of the devils sophistrie wherwith he robbeth the unlearned people, of the true byleef, London: J. Herford for R. Toy, 1546, USTC 503732 – A 241.

Censuring one’s own books
Censuring one’s own books

This theological text was annotated by the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. Though he remained a Catholic all his life, his translation of the Bible and some of his other writings offended Rome and his works were placed on the index of banned books. This copy shows the impact of this ban on pious readers: a blank leaf was stuck on to hide his commentary.

Eucher of Lyon, Lucubrationes aliquot non minus piae quam eruditae, Basel: Hieronymus Froben and Nikolaus Episcopius, 1531, USTC 626417 – D470.

The inquisition and censorship
The inquisition and censorship

With the avalanche of Protestant texts, the Catholic authorities published lists of banned books and authors. These indexes were heavily criticised by some contemporaries such as the Italian Vergerio, but such criticism was not shared by all; a reader noted “Omnia cùm liceant, non licet esse bonum” (When all is permitted, it is not permitted to be good).

P. P. Vergerio, A gl'inquisitori che sono per l'Italia. Del catalogo di libri eretici, stampato in Roma nell'anno presente, Tübingen: Ulrich Morhart’s heirs, 1559, USTC 862626 – A 158.

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.

Engraved ex-libris of the library of the English seminary in Paris
Engraved ex-libris of the library of the English seminary in Paris

Thomas Beauxamis’s ex-libris, book D 181 in the Old Library’s collection
Thomas Beauxamis’s ex-libris, book D 181 in the Old Library’s collection


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.


A Renaissance bibliophile
A Renaissance bibliophile

François Rasse des Neux was one of the most illustrious Parisian collectors of the 16th century. The king’s surgeon and a protestant, he collected books assiduously. His library became so well known that publishers visited it to find new texts. The collection was dispersed after his death, but many copies are known thanks to his handwritten provenances that often include information on the book’s acquisition.

K. Lykosthenes, The doome warning all men to the judgemente, London: Henry Bynneman, 1581, USTC 509327 – B 998.

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A high profile 16th-century figure
A high profile 16th-century figure

Aymar Hennequin, bishop of Rennes, was one of Henry IV’s main opponents prior to his conversion to Catholicism. However, his intellect made him an inescapable figure of late 16th-century France and the king appointed him archbishop of Reims in 1594. This book illustrates his love of history as he added a handwritten annotation paraphrasing Cicero: “Historia lux veritatis et magistra vitae” (History, light of truth and mistress).

S. Schardius, Germanicarum rerum quatuor celebriores vetustioresque chronographi, Frankfurt-am-Main: G. Rab, W. Han & S. Feyerabend’s heirs, 1566, USTC 659628 – D 151.

A poet’s reading
A poet’s reading

This book was owned by Philippe Desportes, the most illustrious French poet of the late 16th century. Close to King Henry III, he became his official poet and his poems were read out at court. During his lifetime, he collected a large library that was dispersed after his death. Today, the volumes are found in various Parisian collections, but the book presented here was hitherto unknown to scholarship.

F. Barozzi, Cosmographia in quatuor libros distributa, Venice: Grazioso Percacino, 1585, USTC 812370 – B 97.

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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.

The life of book D 6 in the Old Library’s collection
The life of book D 6 in the Old Library’s collection
Title page of Book D 6, with its stamp and its ex-libris
Title page of Book D 6, with its stamp and its ex-libris

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.

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