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Incunabula Collection

Date range: 15th century

Medium: Printed

Number of items: 4,000 items.

The core of this collection comes from George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834), acquired by Enriqueta Rylands in 1892 through her purchase of the Spencer collection. Most of his incunabula were housed separately at Spencer House in London, along with his outstanding collection of Aldines. There are approximately 1,000 of German origin, about 2,000 were printed in Italy and the remainder represent the presses of other European countries. About three-quarters date to before 1480.

The collection includes 15 block-books and a number of block-prints, including the St Christopher Woodcut, an early example of European printing bearing the date 1423.

There are examples of the earliest moveable type printed documents such as the Letters of Indulgence of Pope Nicholas V, the 42- and 36-line Bibles, the first three Mainz Psalters along with about 50 productions of the Mainz press associated with Gutenberg, Fust and Schöffer. The Library has the only complete examples in Britain of books printed by Albrecht Pfister in Bamberg. The products of over 100 German presses is represented in the collection.

There are 66 volumes printed by Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, the first printers in Italy working in Subiaco and Rome between 1465 and 1473. It is the most complete collection in the country, lacking only the editions of Aristotle and Perottus of 1473.

253 printers working in nearly 50 different Italian towns are represented in the collection. There are 349 volumes printed in Rome (329 separate editions) and these include 39 items printed by Ulrich Han. Of particular importance is Han's 1467 edition of the Meditationes of Cardinal Turrecremata, the only copy in the country of the first Italian illustrated book. Venetian incunables total 576 volumes (485 separate editions), with 42 printed by Vindelinus de Spira and 43 by Nicholas Jenson.

Other Italian towns for which significant numbers of incunables are available include Milan (125 volumes, 111 separate editions of which 30 were printed by Zarotti), Florence (110 volumes, 93 separate editions), and Naples (100 volumes, 96 separate editions). The 49 volumes of 44 separate editions printed in Brescia are of particular importance as ten are not available elsewhere in Britain, and five items, the work of Thomas Ferrandus, are unique.

There are 30 examples of the first Parisian printers, Gering, Friburger and Crantz, and about 100 other examples of the work of other printers in the French capital. French provincial printers are also well represented, particularly those of Lyon and Toulouse, a unique item from the latter town being the 1488 edition of Aesop with Spanish text, issued by Johannes Parix and Stephan Cleblat.

The English incunables include over 60 Caxtons of which 36 are complete and unsophisticated, and four are unique, constituting the second largest such collection in the world. This includes Caxton’s first book (and the first book ever printed in English), The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye (Bruges, 1473?).

Other English printers well represented include John Lettou, William de Machlinia, Richard Pynson, Julian Notary, the Schoolmaster printer of St Albans, and Wynkyn de Worde, including the unique copy of his 1498 edition of Morte Darthur. The Library also has one of the only two surviving copies of the Caxton edition of Morte Darthur.

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For more information on the collection and its provenance see our First Impressions website.


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