Incunable fragments

One of my recent tasks has been the identification and cataloguing of just over twenty loose sheets of printed material, found as fragments at ECL. Most of these are from ‘incunables’, books printed before 1500, when the printing process was in its infancy.  The rarity of printed books surviving from the 15th century means that even single sheets and fragments have been kept by collectors.

Although the ECL fragments are small and imperfect, they are each unique. For instance, most have had rubrics painted in by hand, so that they look more like the manuscripts fifteenth century readers were used to.  Some, like the fragment from Alphonso de Spina’s Fortaliter Fidei, even have beautiful decorated initials (whilst others, like the Dante, have gaps where painted initials should have been).

A list from the late 19th century identified some of the fragments, and I visited the Bodleian and Cambridge University Library to compare our fragments with complete copies there, and confirm each identification.  The remaining fragments involved more guesswork, identifying the text (the Bible was easy – bits of Plutarch and St Augustine much less so!) and working through the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue and the Bodleian Incunable Catalogue to seek out likely candidates.  Again, I went to see complete copies in other libraries, and managed to identify most of our fragments this way.  A few still have me completely foxed!  I will put up photos of these some time, to see if anyone can help.

After identifying them, of course, I had to tackle the difficulty of cataloguing fragments. But that’s a whole different blogpost…

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian