Where We Find New Old Books, chapter 1: broadsides, almanacs and the ephemeral
This occasional series will highlight the types of unrecorded early printed books that are regularly uncovered in the process of cataloguing. This first article was first featured in Issue 3 of 600 Years of Book Collecting, the University Library’s 600th anniversary publication published in the years 2013-2014. You can order your limited edition boxed set of 600 Years of Book Collecting from the University’s online shop.
It is a common misconception that the whole of the output of the printed word is known and has been collected by libraries across the world. Although books do survive in greater numbers than any other human-made object (except possibly coins), they are also the most historically susceptible objects at risk to destruction and loss. Fires and floods, wars and regime changes, thieves and zealots all pose risks to the survival of any given printed work. Some printed works were (and still are) designed to be ephemeral in nature: playbills, posters, broadsides, calendars, newspapers and almanacs. Indulgences printed by the likes of Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton were printed in runs of over 100,000 copies, yet only a precious few (and, in some cases none) survive. These types of publications provide historians and interested readers with an invaluable fleeting glimpse of day-to-day life in a given place and time.
Yet, it is also because of human intervention that some of these ephemeral works have survived to modern day. In fact, almost every day new examples of printing from the 15th-19th centuries are found in libraries, personal collections, auctions or bazaars. These range from one-sheet publications having been folded or bound into a larger volume, small pamphlets being found at the bottom of a box, or, as is the case with this book, sheets of out-of-date printed material being used as packing material for an old binding.
These two sheets were once glued to the front and back boards of a contemporary, 15th century binding, of Günther Zainer’s 1474-1476 printing of Pope Gregory I’s Epistolae. These sheets are both the lower half of a one-sheet German language almanac printed for the year 1472. They are also two of the only four known copies of this specific almanac in the world (see ISTC for more information). Zainer, the first printer to set up shop in Augsburg, is known for his illustrated books. However, he also printed almanacs in German and Latin in large broadsheet format every year from 1470 to 1490.
Almanacs in the vernacular (instead of the more official Latin) were popular by the last quarter of the 15th century, but, because of their annual nature, were often destroyed or re-used after the year was finished. In fact, all the surviving copies of this almanac seem to have suffered the same fate, being re-used in bindings just a few years after they were printed. This was almost certainly a matter of economics: until the end of the 18th century, the cost of paper comprised 70-80% of the total cost of printing a book and any paper that could be re-used was.
St Andrews’ two fragmentary copies of this 1472 almanac have survived within a beautiful 15th century Augsburg binding enveloping Pope Gregory I’s Epistolae, a wonderful example of the output of Zainer’s printing press. A late 15th century inscription on a leaf added to the front of the book states that the book was once kept at the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul in Erfurt (central Germany). This book was also once owned by John Lorimer, M.D. St Andrews (1764), who was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and who served as a surgeon in the British army in North America between 1758 and 1784, participating in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.
Rare Books Librarian