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Rare 15th-century printed pages by Caxton discovered by researcher

Posted by Charles Hull. This article is by Tania Mason, Tuesday 09 May 2017 – the Copyright of PrintWeek magazine is acknowledged. Thank you for use of this information.

A librarian at the University of Reading has unearthed one of the oldest surviving pages ever printed, identified as part of a book produced by William Caxton at his Westminster print shop in the 15th century.

Erika Delbecque, special collections librarian at the university, came across the ‘incredibly rare’ find as she was cataloguing a collection of 20,000 books and pages that had been assembled by a 20th century typographer, John Lewis, to demonstrate the different types used for printing from the 15th century to the present day.

The single leaf, which was printed on both sides, was glued to a piece of cardboard when Delbecque spotted it and recognised the black lettering, layout and red paragraph marks as an example of very early Western European print.

The page was originally part of a 15th century handbook for priests, written in medieval Latin and believed to be printed by Caxton in the earliest years of his innovative printing business in London, in either 1476 or 1477.

The only other pages known to survive from the book are eight double-sided leaves held at the British Museum.

Delbecque told PrintWeek the page bears the marks of impressions from leather on the edges, indicating it was previously bound into a book.

The pages have been in the possession of the University of Reading since 1997, when the 80-box collection was purchased from John Lewis with a £70,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

According to a book written by Lewis, some of the pages in the collection once belonged to a Cambridge librarian from the 19th century. ‘So we think this page spent some centuries in Cambridge University library in the binding of one of their books’, said Delbecque.

She said there are about forty leaves from the same period within the collection, and she was examining each one in turn trying to determine what text they were from, or what book they were once part of, when she came across the Caxton.

‘It was interesting because it was the one leaf where I just couldn’t identify the text. I couldn’t find any example of that text anywhere, and that’s because it’s a unique survival, it’s the only copy of that page that survives anywhere.’

The book was called the Sarum Ordinal, and told priests what feasts they should be celebrating on which day of the ecclesiastical year. ‘It was a practical book, a manual that would have been used quite heavily’, said Delbecque.

‘It was originally written in the 11th century by the Bishop of Salisbury and circulated in manuscript form for centuries. It was a key text for clergy and I think that’s why Caxton decided to print it because he was a businessman and he only printed things that he knew would sell.’

The print on the pages is still very clear to read. Delbecque said: ‘Print from that period, if it survives, is usually in very good condition because they used very high quality paper and high quality inks, so it didn’t tend to fade.’

She added: ‘It was printed on a simple wooden printing press, the same kind that Gutenberg would have used, who invented print a few decades earlier. Every little letter was made individually by melting metal and putting it into a mould and then all the letters were put into a frame. The frame was put onto the printing press and then the letters trasnferred by ink onto paper. So every leaf would have been printed manually by hand in that way. And that’s how printing worked until the mid-19th century.’

The Sarum Ordinal was also the subject of the oldest surviving printed advertisement, also printed by Caxton. Delbecque said: ‘It would have been printed on a small slip of paper and pasted upon walls around London to let people know that this book was now available at Westminster and that they should come and buy it.’

The pages, which have been certified by Caxton experts and valued at up to £100,000, will go on display at the University of Reading from 10th May 2017.