Permanent Markers: The Story of Printing
[This online text is based on the booklet that accompanies the exhibition on view.]
Earliest evidence of Printing in the collections of Beinecke Library
As a human technology, printing is arguably the invention most responsible for the advancement of civilization. The systematized approach to making marks with conformity over and over again on a surface supported major advances in communication, education, proselityzation, entertainment, and record-keeping, allowing the world to become in many ways, modern. Equal to its effects to medicine and war-making, printing can be called a defining force in the modern world. However, we are now at a stage of history in which the technology of printing is diverging from the content it traditionally recorded. Massive amounts of information now stream wirelessly and are passed along in bits rather than as ink on paper. Printing is seen in many industries as an outdated medium. Many ask: “Whither the book?”
The Beinecke Library was established to be a repository of record for printing – along with the manuscript and archival traditions that record acts of creation – and continues to serve this original mandate. While the definition of printing at Beinecke has been focused on the most recognizable basic end result of this technology – the book – we have sought out, both in building the collections and compiling this exhibition, significant examples of other ways that surfaces have been marked in the service of solidifying memory and recording culture.
While the collections in Beinecke focus on printing in the Western hemisphere, significant items that reside within its walls offer examples of the origins of the process for transferring indelible ink from a hard surface to a receptive fiber medium. Collections of Chinese and Japanese antiquities, overseen by subject specialists in Sterling Memorial Library, are the earliest evidence of printing in the service of creating documents that would be durable instruments of record.
The Yale Association of Japan, which began bringing Japanese books to New Haven in the 1860s, acquired several examples of the most culturally important early printed objects, which are now housed in the Beinecke Library. The Hyakumantō darani (or in Chinese: Bai wan ta tuo luo ni) are a set of four Buddhist sutras, or prayers, printed with woodblocks in Japan between 764 and 770. The set at Yale consists of three original scrolls and one collotype reproduction from 1908. These are the earliest printed items in any library collection that can be reliably dated.
From the eighth century, we jump to the fourteenth, where a pair of paper bills and a rhyming dictionary show how block printing had become a standard form of document creation in Asia. While printing was used for money in China as early as the eleventh century, the only obtainable examples of paper specie date from the Ming dynasty in 1375. Yale has two fine examples of “Daming tongxing baochao”, notes worth “yi guan” (one string) signifying 1000 bronze coins, both given to the Beinecke Library by the International Center for Finance of the Yale School of Management. The dictionary, Kokon inkai kyoyo, is a Japanese production from 1398 giving rhymes for Chinese words.
Gutenberg and The Birth of Western Printing
An assemblage of books from the mid-fifteenth century represents the story of Western printing. Johannes Gutenberg is, as expected, the focus of this section. His 42-line Bible, completed in 1455, is on display in a specially-constructed case on the mezzanine of the Beinecke Library. The group of books assembled for this exhibition details the lesser-known story of the man and his invention in the years following the publication of the Bible. Beinecke holds three printed works Gutenberg was most likely involved in the late 1450s. The Catholicon, of 1460 was a grand undertaking. This encyclopedia, perhaps the first secular printed book, was set in Gothic Antigua type, a much smaller font that that used in the 42-line Bible. Its colophon proudly asserts that the volume has been “printed and accomplished without the help of reed, stylus or pen but by the wondrous agreement, proportion and harmony of punches and types...” Yale's copy was given in 1956 by Louis M. Rabinowitz.
Alongside the Catholicon are two smaller books that use the same type and were most likely prepared at the same time: The Dialogus rationis et conscientiae by Matthaeus de Cracovia and the Summa de articulis fidei of Thomas Aquinas, both finished around 1460. Completing this small group of early incunables are two sets of pages from the 1462 Bible printed by Johann Fust, the man who took over Gutenberg’s print shop, and Peter Schöffer. One set is on paper, while the other pair, evidently recovered from a book binding, is on vellum.
The Yale libraries are awash in landmark “firsts”. On view are:
The first book printed in English: The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (William Caxton and, probably, Colard Mansion, 1473 or 1474)
The first book printed in England: Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophhres . . . (William Caxton, not after 18 Nov. 1477)
The first book printed in italic type: Virgil. Works (Aldi Romani, April 1501)
The first counterfeit version of the aforementioned work: Virgil. Works (Balthazard de Gabiano, ca.1501-02)
Crosswords, an Epic, and Chaucer, Annotated
A brilliantly evocative and mysterious work from 1503, De Laudibus Sanctae Crucis (Phorçheim, T. Anshelm) by the ninth-century Benedictine monk Rabanus Maurus, is a triumph of melding letter-press and woodcut imagery. This is a collection of picture poems based on the cross in the form of grids that create rebuses and acrostics - generating a sort of mystical literary-graphical exercise.
Two remarkable printed texts show the kind of deep research possibilities offered by Beinecke’s collections. The Workes of Geffray Chaucer Newly Printed, with Dyuers Workes Whiche Were Neuer in Print Before . . . (Thomas Godfray, 1532) contains over 1000 annotations in various hands. Along with a number of Canterbury Tales, the volume gathers other works, some of which are spuriously attributed to Chaucer: Romaunt of the Rose; Troylus and Creseyde; Boetius De Consolatione Philosophie; How Pite is Ded and Beried in a Gentyll Hert; and Conclusions of the Astrolabie.
Another key work of the European literary tradition was a recent addition to the Beinecke's collections: the first edition of Os Lusiadas (Antonio Gonçaluez, 1572), the Portuguese national epic poem by Luís Vaz de Camões.
Remnants of the Process
In the late 1950s, Yale purchased a collection of fragments from early printed books. Previously owned by the Bavarian State Library in Munich, these bits and pieces – whole folios, strips of vellum, crumbling parts of misprinted sheets – were intended for study and display. They work well to show stages of the printing process rarely seen: changes, errors, and curiosities. Among these remnants are printed sheets that have not been folded to form signatures that would then be gathered with other signatures to be bound together as a codex, revealing one of the core processes of book-making. There are also pages that have only red letters printed on them, giving evidence that this color was done first before black ink letters were printed – a piece of information that can help scholars understand how books were created.
Evidence Left Behind
Beinecke is rich in complete books that document the printing process. Among the most beautiful and helpful of these are Albrecht Dürer’s Underweysung der Messung ([s.n.], 1525) and Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, or The Doctrine of Handy-Works (J. Moxon, 1677-83).
In the third volume of Dürer’s “Four Books on Measurement”, he applied principles of classical geometry to typography and set the stage for a scientific approach to the design of letters for printing. The second volume of Moxon’s much-reprinted compendium of practical knowledge shows the many stages of printing – from casting and setting type to operating a hand-crank press.
Several early items show other, more literal marks of how they were created. A manuscript of Poggio Bracciolini’s Historia Florentina, (1475) is obviously a printer’s copy, annotated for the typesetter and smudged with thumbprints. A later printed work, Cervantes’ The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote (A. Millar, 1755) was also used as a setting copy for a later edition and is similarly filled with marks and ink smears.
Two recent acquisitions show how the study of printed books can be advanced by unintentionally preserved evidence. An otherwise unremarkable copy of Vincenzo Coronelli’s Cronologia universale che facilita lo studio di qualumque storia (s.n., 1707) contains a page with an uncut volvelle – allowing scholars to see how early binders were instructed to assemble this widespread informational device. Another title, Alessandro Guagnini’s Sarmatiae Europeae descriptio . . . (Bernardum Albinum, ) a work describing countries in Eastern Europe, might have been of less interest had its endpapers not been recycled sheets of a 1581 Humfrey Norton Almanac containing a previously unrecorded Thomas More epigram on the title page.
Balancing these examples of early printed books are two contemporary works that show how the impulse to create new ways of printing survives in our changing times. Martha Finney, a graduate of Yale School of Architecture, creates unique books using a handstamp method. On view, unfolding down the middle of the display case, are her Babel of Alphabets and Tower of Numbers. Both generate contemplation about the numerological systems that underlie their elegant graphic composition – reminiscent of the haunting work by Rabanus Maurus.
The exhibition gallery is closed while the library's building is under renovation.
Temporary Reading Room Hours
Monday - Friday: 9 am to 4:45 pm
The temporary reading room is located in Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, across Wall Street from the Beinecke.