An incunable is a book that was printed before the year 1500, when the printing press was still a new invention. Most surviving ones are now in specialist libraries or private collections, but we’re fortunate to have one example here at the Record Office: Lives of the Saints volume II, by Plutarch (D5424/1). It was printed by Nicolas Jenson in Venice on the second of January 1478 and still looks fantastic. As you can see on the photographs, early printed books tried to look like illuminated manuscripts, with the printers leaving room for hand-drawn capital letters and other illustrations.
What makes this particular copy unique, is that it was rebound in 1902 by Douglas Cockerell, a well-known bookbinder from the arts and crafts era. He used wooden boards, just as they would have used in the fifteenth century, with a beautifully decorated piece of leather along the spine. The boards themselves he left bare – it was generally assumed at that time that that is how a medieval binding would have looked.
Unfortunately though, this has caused a problem: chemicals within the wood have migrated into the new endleaves (first and last pages of a book), causing severe discolouration and weakening of the paper.
Fortunately no damage has been done to the original pages. Removing the binding would destroy part of the book’s history and cause a lot of stress to the fifteenth century paper, so we protect the text with sheets of inert archival quality polyester, loosely placed in between the binding and the pages. We now know that they usually covered the boards completely with parchment in the Middle Ages, perhaps at least partly to avoid this problem.
Shiny archival polyester sheet in place
This book is a great example of how conservators and bookbinders can cause damage, despite following the procedures and using the techniques that are accepted as ‘best practice’ in their time. Knowledge about materials such as wood, leather, paper and inks constantly increases, bringing new ideas and new techniques for every new generation of conservators. All we can do is try and keep up to date with the latest developments, regularly think about the materials and techniques we’re using and whether they are still appropriate, and hope that our future colleagues will understand that they too will make ‘mistakes’.
If any bibliophiles out there would like to help us continue to look after this marvellous book, you can adopt it via our Adopt a Piece of History scheme.