Guest post: Excisions in a 17th century book

Catechismvs Ex Decreto Sacro, excition on the title pageI am Marta Ameijeiras Barros, a Postgraduate Intern working in the Rare Book Collections Department, and today I ‘am making my debut’ on the Rare Books blog. The subject I chose belongs to one of the saddest chapters of the history of the book: its dissection, as if it were a laboratory specimen, at the hands of collectors, antiquarians, book dealers and even librarians.

On one of my first days in the department, an exquisite Latin catechism published in 1635 fell into my hands, the Catechismus Ex Decreto Sancrosancti Concilii Tridentini (Paris: Martin Durand, 1635) (NLS shelfmark: Cassidy.1746), belonging to the Cassidy Collection. What grasped my attention was that the woodcut had been cut out of the title page, leaving the next page visible as if through an open window. So somebody had thought that what was represented there was interesting and had decided to extract it.

What today would always be seen as vandalism was not always considered such. From the 17th until the beginning of the 20th century incunabula, illuminated manuscripts and early printed books, were victims of a fashion in collecting, in an effort to create varied compilations of pages and woodcuts from books of different origin, size and date; or a desire to make good defective copies.

This activity was so widespread between the antique dealers, that it is well known that even a bibliophile like John Ruskin (1819-1900) did not have any doubt about cutting a page if this was pleasing to him. A diary entry in which he records spending an evening cutting up a missal is reported by David Pearson in Provenance Research in Book History, pp.5-6.

This phenomenon can also be seen in the current exhibition of the National Library Beyond Macbeth: Shakespeare in Scottish Collections  in the figure of James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips (1820-1889), a scholar of Shakespeare who for his studies, made a series of scrapbooks with excisions from early printed books with references about the life and works of Shakespeare.

Coming back to our catechism, I think that this was a victim of the first wave of these collectors and its cutting would form part of those varied collections. But there is the chance that there could be another reason. Title pages frequently appeared signed indicating the ownership of these books, so could this missing piece have been extracted for covering up a possible inscription, perhaps of a previous proprietor?

However, as we all know, something incomplete or damaged is more vulnerable to destruction, as happened with a number of rare books. Luckily, this was not the destiny of this catechism, which is now kept resting on the shelves of the National Library bearing the scar of a dark time of the history of the book which we can not neglect.

Further reading:

  • William Blades, The Enemies of Books (London, 1880) NLS shelfmark Bg.10/2, chapter IX
  • David Pearson, Provenance research in book history: a handbook NLS shelfmark NRR (3.11 PEA) (Ruskin reference pp. 5-6)

The Cassidy Collection is not currently listed on the NLS online catalogue, but this book can be ordered by phone or email, or by filling in a slip in the reading room.