Saturday, 27 May 2017

Pages from the past, which "flew about like butterflies"

"In 1663 I entered into my Latin school at Yatton Keynell,, in the church….The fashion then was to save the ferules [bindings] of their books with a false cover of parchment, that is, old manuscripts, which I was too young to understand; but I was pleased with the elegancy of the writing and the coloured initial letters. …"

John Aubrey recounts how one rector used old manuscripts from Malmesbury Abbey  to stop up his beer barrels,  and another parson's sons used them to scour their guns.

"In my grandfather's days the manuscripts flew about like butterflies.  All music books, account books, copy books etc. were covered with old manuscripts, as we cover them now with blue paper or marbled paper; and the glovers at Malmesbury made great havoc of them; …One may also perceive by the binding of old books how the old manuscripts went to wrack in those days."

 John Aubrey, 1626-97  edited Richard Barber, © Folio Society  

John Aubrey, writer and antiquarian  1626-1697

Despite these and all the various destructive usage of old manuscripts and printed pages, miraculously many have survived.  One is a completely unique page from an early Willam Caxton book of 1476-7, a Latin printing of the 11th century Sarum Ordinal, which was resting in the University of Reading Library archives.  Lost for over 300 years, it had been found in 1820 being used to strengthen the binding of another book, but was unrecognised then as Caxton's printing.  Nearly a century later, it has recently been rediscovered while cataloguing a vast repository of fragments from a typographer's collection.  This rare "butterfly" is now on exhibition in Reading till mid June.  (see Beckett, Books  and Biscuits: University of Reading Special Collections for more information.)

William Caxton's printer's mark

Page with red letter initial, in the style of early manuscripts, from Caxton's Canterbury Tales 

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