Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cambridge University to create online collection of medieval printed texts

A 1455 copy of the Gutenberg Bible and the first printed edition of Homer's worka, published in 1488, are among ancient books being published online by Cambridge University Library. The collection of pre-1501 printed books, known as incunabula, is being made available online thanks to a £300,000 grant. Over the next five years the University library will produce detailed records for each item. The books will then be able to be viewed by anyone around the world.

The selection includes a 1455 copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in Europe using movable metal type, and the first printed edition of Homer's works, from 1488.

Cambridge University Library’s celebrated collection of incunabula comprises some 4650 items. Its origins go back to the early history of the Library; the earliest printed books were given by Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York and Chancellor of England, who died in 1500. Subsequent donors include Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, who gave the University its first Greek texts, and Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, whose gift of 1574 included a splendid copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle with hand-coloured woodcuts. The Library’s greatest benefactor was George I, who in 1715 gave the library of John Moore, Bishop of Ely, renowned throughout Europe for its medieval manuscripts and early printed books.

The collection was greatly enhanced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by Henry Bradshaw, Librarian from 1867 to 1886 and an influential scholar in the field, and benefactors such as Arthur Young (1852–1936), whose gifts included the editio princeps of Dante and the Library’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Numerically, books printed in Germany and Italy predominate; in terms of quality, however, holdings from the presses of England and the Low Countries are outstanding. The collection contains around 134 unique items, including quartos printed by William Caxton during his first years as a printer in Westminster.

Another book in the collection is a rare Book of Hours printed on vellum by William Caxton's successor, Wynkyn de Worde and is inscribed by Henry VIII's future wife, Catherine Parr and her family.

Professor Miri Rubin, a medieval historian and author, of Queen Mary, University of London, said putting them online would open up new possibilities for scholars. "These earliest printed books were the product of medieval craftsmanship, but they also reflect new – often humanist – trends in learning and reading," she said. "Religion and politics, poetry and science are all to be found in these early books. Hence the project will have a major impact by offering new opportunities for scholars and others."

Anne Jarvis, university librarian, said: "We are delighted to be able to create high quality, searchable records for these rarest of books and share them via the internet with readers around the world."

The project will be undertaken over the next five years.