The Benefits of Cleaning House; or, A Chronicle from the Press of Wynkyn de Worde

I think it’s fairly safe to say that every library has a stash of uncatalogued books that have been relegated to an out of the way corner for being troublesome. Often, these books are missing their title pages, or are fragments that have been cut from some larger volume, or else they’re in a language that none of the staff can read. They sit, waiting for the day when there’s enough time, funding, or expertise to accurately identify and describe them.

Cardiff University is no exception, particularly as we’d been without a full-time rare books cataloguer since the middle of 2014. So when I started as the new rare books cataloguer in November of last year, I was not at all surprised to see a trolley parked at the very back of the rare book stacks bearing an assortment of books (and pieces of books) that had been pulled aside from the main sequence, some bearing little slips of scrap paper with handwritten notes as testament to the efforts of cataloguers past.

Although time-consuming, working on these volumes is something of a treat for me. There’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction in being able to match up a small stack of loose gatherings with their parent volume, or to positively identify a particular edition even though its title page and preliminaries have gone on a walkabout somewhere.

Binding

With its binding of rich purple goatskin and gold tooling, this book’s former owner obviously valued it highly.

On this particular trolley, however, I saw a volume that didn’t look like the usual victim of damage or neglect. It was in outwardly good condition, with a 19th century binding of rich purple goatskin, tooled in gold. Why had this volume been set aside?

Opening the volume, I saw that the text was in English and the subject matter was secular–a chronicle of the history of England and Wales–but the typeface was blackletter, hinting that it might be an early imprint. The title page bore no date or publisher’s name, so I turned to the back of the volume in search of a colophon and found this full-page woodcut printer’s device:

Wynkyn de Worde’s printer’s device. The central glyph is taken from WIlliam Caxton’s device, showing de Worde’s respect for his former master.

Wynkyn de Worde’s printer’s device. The central glyph is taken from the printer’s mark of his former master, WIlliam Caxton.

I immediately recognized the device as that of Wynkyn de Worde, confirmed by the colophon on the previous page, which reads: “…imprynted at London … in flete street, at the sygne of the Sonne, by me Wynkyn de Worde”. No wonder the previous owner wanted to give it such a fancy binding!

The colophon of the 1528 Cronycles of Englonde. Wynkyn de Worde was the first printer to set up shop in Fleet Street, which remains to this day a central hub of printing and book production.

Wynkyn de Worde was the first printer to set up shop in Fleet Street, which remains to this day a central hub of printing and book production.

Born in the Netherlands, Wynkyn de Worde came to England around 1476 to work for William Caxton, the first printer to set up shop in England. Following Caxton’s death in 1492, de Worde took over Caxton’s business, moving his place of business from Westminster to London and publishing more than 400 books in over 800 editions over the course of his career.

De Worde’s books often featured woodcut illustrations to make them more visually attractive. To save money, early printers often re-used the same woodcuts in multiple places

De Worde’s books often featured woodcut illustrations to make them more visually attractive. To save money, early printers often re-used woodcuts within the same volume.

De Worde is sometimes compared unfavorably with Caxton, who translated and published the most fashionable texts from the Burgundian court and sold them to wealthy patrons. De Worde, by contrast, sold religious, popular, and educational books to a broader, more populist audience. The evidence of de Worde’s will, however, suggests that he was respected within the community and a well-connected and successful entrepreneur. His estate, for example, was valued at £201 11s. 1d. His household consisted of eight servants, and he left bequests to nine people associated with the book trade, some of whom owed him debts which were written off.

Cardiff University’s copy of of the 1528 Cronycles of Englonde includes a few marginal annotations in an early modern hand, but the text has been cropped so closely during re-binding that most of the handwritten text has been lost.

Cardiff University’s copy includes a some contemporary marginalia, but when the text was trimmed during re-binding much of the handwritten text was lost.

The volume I had found was the 1528 edition of The Cronycles of Englonde : with the dedes of popes and emperours, and also the descripcyon of Englonde. As the title suggests, the text is made up of two main parts. The first part of the text is known as “Brut’s Chronicle” or the “St. Alban’s Chronicle,” and was one of the most popular accounts of English history in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period. Caxton added citations to authoritative texts and produced the first printed edition of it in 1480, making it the first English historical work to be printed and earning it the additional moniker of “Caxton’s Chronicle.” The second part of the text is a description of Great Britain derived from Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon as translated by John Trevisa.

I soon discovered the reason why this book had been set aside. It was missing several leaves, including the title page and first several leaves of the Chronicle. Presumably to draw attention away from the missing portions, the Descripcyon of Englonde, which has its own separate title page, was bound at the beginning of the volume instead of at the end. A cataloguer looking at this book for the first time wouldn’t necessarily know to search for a record under the main title, “Cronycles of Englonde” instead of “Descripcyon of Englonde”.

The library at Syston Park held a rich collection of early printed books, including a Gutenberg Bible, many incunables, and numerous editions by the Leiden publishing house Elzevier.

The library at Syston Park held a rich collection of early printed books, including a Gutenberg Bible, many incunables, and numerous editions by the Leiden publishing house Elzevier.

Our copy bears an armorial bookplate with the name “Syston Park”. Syston Park Hall, built in the 1770s, was the family seat of the Thorold baronets. Sir John Thorold, ninth baronet (1734–1815), and his eldest son and tenth baronet, Sir John Hayford Thorold (1773–1831), were both avid book collectors. A second, smaller bookplate bearing the monogram “JHT” suggests that this volume may have been acquired by the tenth baronet. Between 1822 and 1824, Sir John Hayford Thorold commissioned architect Lewis Vulliamy to build a new library at Syston, which visitor T. F. Dibdin described as “perhaps one of the most splendid and taking book repositories in Europe.” In 1884 and 1923, however, the contents of the house were dispersed in sales and the house demolished soon afterwards. This copy of The Cronycles of Englonde was sold as lot 646 in the 1884 auction, after which it passed through the hands of at least two other individuals, Yorkshire historian T. D. Whitaker and J. S. Isaac, both of whom left inscriptions on the endpapers, before it entered the collection of the Cardiff Public Libraries sometime after 1919.

The title page for the 1528 edition of the Descripcyon of Englonde.

The title page for the 1528 Descripcyon of Englonde.

Despite its imperfections, we here in Special Collections are quite pleased to be the custodians of this little volume.  It is the earliest English imprint on the catalogue (so far!), and an important piece of printing history. It will no doubt see a lot of use in the classroom and reading room in years to come, and makes for a very nice start to the new year!

3 responses to “The Benefits of Cleaning House; or, A Chronicle from the Press of Wynkyn de Worde

  1. This is a fascinating insight into the detective work that goes into identifying and describing some of the rare books. Thanks Christine for finding the current oldest specimen in our collections!

    • Many thanks for your nice remarks. I certainly enjoyed doing the detective work! Just to clarify, however, we’re fortunate enough to have nearly two hundred incunabula, or books printed before 1501, but they’re all continental editions. Although it’s not an incunable, this 1528 Chronicle is our earliest book printed in England.

  2. Reblogged this on jamesgray2 and commented:
    More close work to discover what is on the shelf!

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