Tanned calf over wooden boards, early sixteenth century

Devote ghetiden van den leven ende passie Jhesu Christi
Gouda: Collaciebroeders, 3 October 1496

As printed output increased, binders adopted new decorative techniques aimed at greater speed and lower cost. The two key innovations were the roll, an engraved wheel which could impress a border rapidly with a repeating pattern, and the panel, a cast metal plate which could impress a large decoration directly onto leather. This early sixteenth-century example from the Low Countries demonstrates the advantages of the use of a panel. Imposing and detailed designs, like that on the left, the pelican wounding its own breast to feed its young, could be impressed with relative ease and rapidity.


This small book recalls several aspects of the work of Henry Bradshaw, Cambridge University Librarian from 1867 until his death in February 1886. It comes from the library of the Enschedé family, auctioned at Haarlem in December 1867.

At the time of the auction, Bradshaw had been Librarian only nine months, and was devoting much of the income from the fund established by Tobias Rustat (1608–1694) to the purchase of incunabula, with a special focus on the Low Countries and Cologne. Now he was his own master, where less than two years earlier he had complained to the Dutch bookseller
Martinus Nijhoff that he had to buy early books from his own pocket, while the Library concentrated on those that were ‘modern, useful and scientific’. Bidding through Nijhoff, the Library bought extensively at the Enschedé sale, though Bradshaw was disappointed to lose some of the books he most desired. A few more were obtained subsequently.

Early liturgical books always intrigued Bradshaw, and he generally preferred books in their original condition.The history of the woodcuts in this devotional volume attracted his particular attention. As the Enschedé catalogue pointed out, they had previously been used by Gerard Leeu at Gouda in the early 1480s. They had been much used by others as well, moving as was common from printer to printer. He discussed the volume in correspondence with J.W. Holtrop of the Royal Library at The Hague, and he worked through it annotating as he went, numbering all the 66 distinct woodcuts (repeated to make a total of 94) and noting some of the textual variations. He did not hesitate to write on a fifteenth-century book if that was the most efficient way of recording information. Bradshaw never followed up his interest in the migrations of woodcuts among Low Countries printers. Instead, in 1879 he handed the task to a young member of Trinity College, W.M. Conway,
training this ready pupil in a few weeks and then sending him on tours of libraries in Britain and abroad: many of Conway’s expenses were paid by Bradshaw himself. Within the astonishing space of five years, and guided by Bradshaw, Conway had written and seen published his survey, The woodcutters of the Netherlands in the fifteenth century (Cambridge, 1884), a book that remained standard until the appearance of Ina Kok’s Woodcuts in incunabula printed in the Low Countries in 2013.

Essay by Professor David McKitterick

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