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Impressive incunabula

Queen’s Library has mounted Incunabula: An Exhibit of 15th Century Printing. The exhibit features material from the Library collection and two works owned by Principal Daniel Woolf, whose research interests include the global history of historical writing. Mark Kerr, Senior Communications Officer, sat down with Principal Woolf to discuss his incunabula and the other books in his collection. 

  • [Incunabula]
    Featured in the exhibit is a leaf from the Nuremberg Chronicle printed by Hartmann Schedel in 1493, on loan from the private collection of Principal Daniel Woolf.
  • [Incunabula]
    Students, staff and faculty attended the opening of Incunabula: An Exhibit of 15th Century Printing, on Monday, Nov.10.
  • [Incunabula]
    Some of the pieces in the exhibit feature "marginalia," or notes from readers found in the margins of the texts.
  • [Incunabula]
    Incunabula: An Exhibit of 15th Century Printing is on display at the W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library through Dec. 1.

MK: What is the significance of the works you have loaned to the Library for the exhibit?

DW: One of them is a whole book, a chronicle that came out in 1481 of which the Library in fact owns a slightly earlier edition printed elsewhere. It’s interesting to compare the two. The other is a leaf from the famous Nuremberg Chronicle that came out in 1493.

The full book, which is missing one or two leaves, was written by Carthusian monk Werner Rolevinck. It’s distinctive as being only the second book since printing was invented to be written by a then-living author. Up to that point, the first books printed were the classics and works such as the Bible.

The Nuremberg Chronicle was the giant history of the world published in 1493 by Hartmann Schedel. That’s not the book’s actual title, but it was called that because Schedel was based in Nuremberg.

MK: Your rare book collection includes many titles besides the incunabula. Can you tell me more about your collection and how you acquire the books?

DW: I have a fair number of books from the 16th century and a lot from the 17th and 18th centuries. Occasionally I stray over into the 19th century.

When I first started out, I was going into antiquarian books shops. That is a relatively slow process if you are looking for particular titles. Over the last few years, it has become much easier to buy unusual books through vendor sites like abebooks.com. But now I am increasingly going directly to individual booksellers who are now well aware of my interests. If they get something interesting, they will dangle it in front of me.

MK: Do you collect rare books as a hobby or for research purposes?

DW: Both. There is a theme to the works I collect. They are all works of history or antiquarian scholarship or antiquarian topography written between the 16th to 18th centuries. I will have at one point used other copies of almost all of them in my research over the last 30 years.

MK: Are there any good stories behind some of the books you own?

DW: Some of them have had very interesting “provenance” in past ownership. One is a copy of an early 17th century printing of an Elizabethan English translation of an early 16th century history of Italy by Francesco Guicciardini. The book itself is a very interesting and important work and it’s a nice early edition. But what gives it added value is the book plate, which indicates it belonged to Victorian poet Matthew Arnold.

Others are interesting because they have all sorts of notes. I have one book in which somebody has interleaved the actual book with lots of other leaves, on which they have added their own notes or “grangerizing” interesting things they found relevant to the book. That process, known as “extra-illustrating,” was very popular in the 18th century.

MK: Why should people visit the exhibit at the Library?

DW: The exhibit is fabulous because these aren’t just old books. They’re among the rarest in the world and they appeared right at the dawn of printing. Just consider how many people have owned those books in their 500 year history. When some of these were printed, Columbus had not yet sailed. They are here now and they will be here 200 or 300 years from now — they are survivors.

Considering it was a new technology, the quality of the printing and the paper was remarkable. The quality of the printing is so much superior to most later printing. If you have seen some 19th century books in the Library, often the pages are not in good shape because they were printed on pulp paper that was treated with an acid, which has made the pages brittle over time. Most of these incunabula were printed on a paper based on rags. It’s much tougher. The books are beautiful works of art.

Incunabula: An Exhibit of 15th Century Printing continues at the W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library (Douglas Library) through Dec. 1.