Tanned calf over wooden boards attributed to the Unicorn Binder, active c. 1478–1507

Henricus de Zoemeren (1420–1472?)
Epitoma … dialogi G Ockham
Louvain: Johannes de Westfalia, 1481
Bound with two other works printed in Louvain

The ‘Unicorn Binder’, so called for the distinctive unicorn tool used on his bindings, was active in Cambridge and executed a series of bindings for members of the University. The two holes in the front board of this binding, coupled with the manuscript title written onto the fore-edge of the book (‘Okham de Hereticis’), reveal that it was once chained to a lectern and shelved horizontally, presumably in a college library. An inscription shows that by 1502 it was in the possession of William Bowes, a student and fellow of King’s College, admitted 1479, later rector of Combe St. Nicholas in Somerset.

Inc. 3.F.2.2[3178]

The three items in this volume were all printed in Louvain in the 1480s, but found themselves within a few decades in the hands of a Cambridge graduate living in Somerset. The volume bears annotations by one William Bowes, who in 1479 left Eton College and was admitted as a scholar at the still relatively young King’s College, Cambridge. College records show that he was made a Fellow in 1482 and remained thus until 1502, serving several periods as college bursar. He took on the rectorship of Combe St Nicholas in Somerset in November 1502, and presumably took with him this beautiful volume of three theological texts, fundamental reference works for an educated cleric and ones he must have purchased in Cambridge.

The stub of the final (blank) leaf of the third item in the volume bears an inscription dated 29 July 1505, stating that William Bowes ‘clerke vic[ar] of cumbe seyntnicolas’ and two fellow sureties, Henry Bond and Richard Rocetur, promise to pay to the Lord of Bath or his assigns the sum of 40 shillings at the feast of All Saints. Apart from this, and a Biblical quotation in
red at the end of the final text signed with his name, Bowes left the text completely without annotation.

The book can be securely placed in late fifteenth-century Cambridge by its binding, of stamped leather over wooden boards with clasps to hold the volume closed on the shelf (the clasps themselves are now lost). The renowned binding scholar Anthony Hobson identified this as the work of the Unicorn binder, so named for his most distinctive tool, a small woodland
unicorn. He is known to have bound at least seventy volumes between 1484 and 1505, of which eighteen are in Cambridge libraries (the University Library has one other). These books need not have remained in Cambridge continuously, of course, and the Library purchased this example from the sale of the great collector E. Gordon Duff in 1925. Its ownership between Bowes and Duff is unknown, though the small holes on the upper board suggest it may have been in one of the chained college libraries early in its life. Many libraries are ever more actively acquiring books with early local provenances, meaning that volumes with the distinctive reddish leather used by Cambridge men such as the Unicorn binder and the prolific
Nicolas Spierinck are increasingly coming ‘home’ once again.

Essay by Dr Emily Dourish

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