The Old Library has a collection of about 7,000 printed books, the most treasured of which have to be our 31 incunabula! These books, also known as incunables, were published at the dawn of European printing, during the period before the start of the sixteenth century.
We are delighted to announce that our project to create online catalogue records for the incunabula of Trinity Hall was completed by our specialist rare-books cataloguer, Allen Purvis, earlier this year. Online records for the books can be found using Cambridge University Library’s LibrarySearch and most of our holdings can also be found in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC).
Our incunabula cataloguing project has had the added benefit of shedding a fascinating light on our early collection!
The inscriptions in the incunabula reveal that our early library was built up primarily by generous donation. William Mowse (Master 1552-52 and 1555-1559?) gave us fourteen incunabula, while Robert Hare of Gonville and Caius, who was a great benefactor of the University of Cambridge and friend of Henry Harvey (Master 1559-1585), gave us five incunabula. Unfortunately, we have no record of how the remaining twelve incunabula came into our collection.
The subject of the majority of the incunabula is hardly a surprise for a College renowned for the study of law! Twenty one of the books deal with law, of which eleven concern canon law, nine cover Roman law and one is on feudal law. The other subjects covered include religion, the Catholic Church, history, classical drama and medicine.
Mowse, an eminent ecclesiastical lawyer, was responsible for the majority of the law books. However, his gift also included a book by Suetonius on the History of the Roman emperors (Venice, 1496). One of Mowse’s volumes has the distinction of being the fattest book on the library shelves! It is made up of eight books on canon law (five of which are incunabula) bound into one huge volume, with a spine measuring 15.8cm wide. It never fails to catch the eye of our visitors!
However, the true gems of early printing are the five incunabula from Robert Hare. Hare was an antiquarian with Catholic sympathies and the books he donated concern world history, religion and classical drama.
Through his generosity we have a magnificent hand-coloured copy of Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) and a copy of Werner Rolevinck’s “Fasciculus temporum” (Louvain, 1475), both of which deal with the history of the world.
His incunabula on the subject of religion are Schoeffer’s “Biblia Latina” (Mainz, 1472), which is the earliest printed book in the Old Library, and Bernardino de Busti’s “Rosarium sermonum” (Hagenau, 1500). Hare also donated a copy of Terence’s dramas translated into French (Paris, 1500).
Twelve of our incunabula were printed in Venice, revealing the importance of the Venetian Republic as a centre of early printing. These are followed by four books from Pavia, three books from Milan and two books each from Strassburg and Lyons. We also have one incunable from the following cities: Basel, Cologne, Hagenau, Louvain, Mainz, Nuremberg, Paris and Siena.
While most of our incunabula look quite plain, a few are hand-coloured or hand-decorated. It is especially pleasing that three of our books from Robert Hare have been selected for inclusion in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Cambridge Illuminations research project on illuminated and hand-decorated incunabula.
A project like this always brings surprises and during the course of cataloguing we have discovered three legal incunabula that are not listed for Trinity Hall in ISTC!
The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/istc/
Wikipedia for biographies of Mowse, Hare and Harvey