Monday, September 6, 2010

Feeding My Inner Luddite

Even though it’s a holiday (and Labor Day, at that!), we’re still cataloguing books.

One of the neat things about being an antiquarian book dealer specializing in genealogy and history titles is that there’s no end to the interesting things that come across the desk and onto the shelves.  Not just the basic garden-variety "History of Such-and-Such County" or the "Genealogy of the So-and-So Family", but books on really interesting topics that most people never have time to think about, let alone read about.

For example, part of my “short pile” for the day includes a book on the homeless transients in New York State during the Great Depression, another is a history of anthrax, and yet one more is titled “The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South.”

These are the “bread and butter” kind of titles that end up on the Jonathan Sheppard Books website, along with all the local histories and genealogies.  The real fun, however, comes when you come across something truly unusual, something that can’t be found in most libraries, isn’t available in any digitized format, and, in all probability, is something that most scholars will never hold in their hands.

In this case, it’s a small pamphlet, only 23 printed pages altogether, outlining (in archaic German) the terms of the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis.  That’s the treaty that ended the hostilities between Spain’s King Philip II and France’s King Henry II, largely over the control of what is today called Italy.  Under its  terms, France gave up Corsica, Savoy, Piedmont and Milan, but got to keep Turin, Saluzzo and Pignerol.

Boring stuff to some, perhaps, but the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis changed the map of Europe, re-ordered the balance of power and had far-reaching effects on the history of the New World by making Spain and the Hapsburg family the dominant force in the western world for more than a century.

The pamphlet's printer, Seybald Meyer, of the university town of Dillingen in Swabia (Bavaria), illustrated the title page of the treaty with a woodcut showing the joined arms of the two kings. The artist who made the woodcut is unknown.

The pamphlet itself is in near perfect condition and shows virtually no signs of wear.  The handmade paper upon which it is printed is supple, but with a noticeable, but not quite coarse, texture as you glide your fingers across its surface.  After all, the paper was made largely from rags –  handmade from recycled handmade clothing. (Perhaps the few brown flecks in the paper may have been some Dillingen maiden's skirt.) The words of the treaty, printed from Mayer’s hand-made and hand-set type, actually dig into the paper, creating tactile hills and valleys of paper and rich black ink. Those words were pressed in, a single sheet at a time, by a wooden press with a large wooden screw, all manufactured by hand and powered entirely by the printer’s own muscles.  Remember, the roots of the word "manufacture" are Latin, meaning "made by hand or by an artisan".

It’s a great example of the way things were printed in the very old days.  In this case, “the old days” is a most appropriate term, since this particular pamphlet came off Mayer’s printing press in 1559.

In 1559, Shakespeare hadn't even born yet.

1559.  Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, was formally crowned in Westminster Abbey in January of that year.  She’s mentioned in the treaty as the “Kunigin von Engelland”.   The Spanish outpost of St. Augustine in what would become Florida had not yet been founded, nor had Jamestown.  Christopher Columbus had only been dead for 53 years. George Washington would not be born for another 173 years.

1559 was a very long time ago.

Yet, despite its great age, the pamphlet looks and feels like it was printed last week. Chances are, it will look that way for at least a couple of more centuries.  (I wonder what today’s Kindles, netbooks and Ipads will look like then?)

Yes, I’m glad I have my laptop, my Internet access and all my electronic digital conveniences, but every now and then, I like to feed my inner Luddite and play with some really old books that are a joy to touch, smell and stare at.  Labor Day’s a good day to celebrate things made by hand with care.

Here’s the part of the title page, with the woodcut armorial:

And the  simple colophon on the last page, identifying the printer and place of publication:

(Note: the Bible quote above  after "LAUS DEO" (Praise God) is from Proverbs Chapter 12 Verse 20)  -
"Deceit is in the heart of those who plot evil; but joy comes to the promoters of peace."

Happy Labor Day!

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