Tag Archives: rare books

A Celebration of music manuscripts symposium – review

When the call came over the ALIA RareBooks distribution list earlier this year that there would be a symposium on manuscripts at the university of Sydney, I immediately registered.  Parchment manuscripts, musicology and calligraphy are not my specialties, but interested as I am in printer’s decorated initials, I could see some relevance in my attendence.

I went to see these:

By the way, these are digitised. You can view them here.

The speakers list was impressive, more so when I got there than on paper. I didn’t know anyone; had no idea that I would be in the presence of some brilliant minds and thinkers. It is a very niche set of talks surrounding processional manuscripts in Sydney University’s Fisher Library rare book collection. To be honest I didn’t realise the minutiae into which the speakers would be delving. It’s been two years since I completed Thomas Forrest Kelly’s online course on Books in the medieval liturgy (HarvardEX), and I was a bit fuzzy on some terms. As I listened to speakers compare square notations from similar books, I felt part of a bigger world; that there is a world where research is conducted on what could be for some people, obscure topics, but very important for the development of society in general.

The Keynote speaker David Andres Fernandez was presenting some findings of his examination of processional books Add. MS 358,F406, F380 and F407, with comparison to exemplars from Seville.  His book on this subject was to be the evening’s book launch, which included a short concert of some of the music contained therein. I do not write much detail of his presentation because I didn’t understand it all. However it was well received my the knowledgeable audience  who did not hesitate to ask questions.

David Andres Fernandez with Jane Hardie at the symposium

David Andres Fernandez with Jane Hardie

At the book launch downstairs, I met fellow ALIA bloggers Nicholas Sparks and Diana Richards. Meredith Lawn, music librarian at the SLNSW,  gave me great tips on how to find early music in the catalogue (for their watermarks of course). I’m such an innocent; I just siddle up to people and introduce myself – if only I had remembered how to introduce myself in Spanish – and start chatting, not knowing who people are. Just about everyone there was either a doctor of this or a professor of that,  all humble and generous and very approachable. To our delight a sextet sang songs from the manuscripts; these were open for viewing in the rare book room. There was plenty of mingling, eating and examination of manuscripts.

The next day was divided into 4 sessions. Julie Sommerfeldt, Manager of Rare Books Collection, whom I met in 2012 at the LRBSC in London, was the perfect hostess for such an event opened the floor for the first day’s speaker, Nicholas Sparks who delightfully introduced us to the history of the Fisher Library’s collection.

Simon Polson’s Talk about talking about manuscripts posed the problem of nomenclature when describing manuscripts: do the defining words refer to the space in which the item is used or to the user of said item, referring here as an example to the word “augustinian”. He discovered that in the manuscripts he examined many of the pages contained recycled images from other manuscripts and that some pages were palimpsest, that is pieces of parchment whose words have been removed and recycled for the use of other text.

Jason Stroessel’s paper was read out by Alan Maddox. It examined the gauges of the staff, and he proposed that 4 scribes were the makers of this processional. Incongruities in the rubric suggested that perhaps it may have started out as a book written for monks, but ended being produced for an abbess.

Morning teas are great opportunities to mingle. Sometimes I don’t know what to say to people. However mingle I did. Throughout the day at all these eating opportunities I spoke with people in the hopes that next time we meet our acquaintance will be renewed in a more relaxed manner. Some people have very sympatico faces; faces that just make you want to know them. Others, you can tell that they probably feel as awkward as you are feeling. It’s like living in a Jane Austen novel, but the reality is that if you are shy and you go to a function by yourself you do not have the benefit of being introduced to others. And if you are all shy, then there is silence and missed opportunities.

Robert Curry examination of the Regla de Sancta Clara Fisher 364 also uncovered the possibilities of four scribes to the manuscript. St Clare’s personal rule was one of poverty; but if you followed St Clare’s St Urban rule, then your life in the sisterhood would be much easier. I am so glad I live in the modern world. I was learning ecclesiastical history in dribs and drabs. By mid-morning I had made the following notes to self:

  1. return to the study of paleography
  2. learn more about the ruling popes and who were they exactly
  3. re learn the order of prayers
  4. read up on the council of Trent
  5. Re-do the online course on liturgical books

And of what importance would this be to me? Actually there is much symbolism in title pages, printers’ initials and printers’ devices, so it wouldn’t hurt me to know this stuff. What other things did I learn?

  • What is a melisma? a group of notes sung to one syllable of text.
  • What is an acceptable variant within a family ? that might be of written notation or printer’s blocks or watermarks…
  • What is a letra gruessa? a fat letter – and later in printing terms, there is similarity with the black letter family.

And thanks to Meredith I finally found out what a viola de gamba was.

From Kathleen Nelson’s presentation on the antiphonal Fisher  F1, I learned about letras caudinales – second most important letters, used for psalms, and letras quebradas, broken letters, (again here we can relate to the printed black letter or the quebrada in tango) used for verses.

The Canadians Barbara Swanson and Debra Lacoste were both charming and warm. I realise I am talking more about the people than about the presentations.  At the end of the day it is all about connections; and I made lovely connections with these very learned people.

There was not much in the way of binding descriptions. The exhibition was focused on the pages not the bindings, so not much joy there either. So yes, I was only just keeping my head above the waters.

If you can’t go to Sydney, visit the digital versions. I had a great time; it ran smoothly and on time, and my thanks go out to Julie and Jane for giving us this fantastic opportunity.







Filed under education, food, libraries

What a bunch of fools!

At the beginning of each new school year, I would go to the newsagency to buy my required exercise books. Usually there was a tall one and some short fat ones.

2017-11-24 07.52.55

Foolscap and the shorter book

(If we are going down the past of nostalgia, who remembers roneos?)

I liked neither because I grew up in a French country where the exercise books were like this:

  You can learn cursive writing with this sort of paper

Since I can no longer buy these lined books, my preference now lies with the range of “A” size products. This sizing has become the standard, but in 1979, A4 books were not common.

2017-11-24 07.53.20

A4 and A5 notebooks

However what has all this got to do with the image below?


Yes it is a fool, with a very small head. He has a 7 bell collar, short even 2 bell hat, with a 4 and 3 circles under. And no hair braid.

Paper with the fool’s cap watermark was used quite commonly all over Europe. On the Continent, its size was quite varied, but in England in denoted paper 12 inches by 16 inches. The foolscap usually refers to the fool’s head with a cap. Sometimes the cap is a hat, sometimes it is a cap that goes over the ears. The cap or hat usually has two bells, sometimes on sashes of differing sizes. Early fools had braids, either diagonal or horizontal; towards the end of the 17th century the fools loose their braid and and the braid, in form of circles, is now found on the hat. The fool’s collar also differs in time and place: it can have from 4 to 8 points. Underneath the fool you will more than likely find a 4 with a crosse pommée and 3 circles. Sometimes in lieu of the 4 there might be a triangle.

In E.J. Labarre’s 1952 “Dictionary and Encyclopedia of paper and papermaking“(p110), you will find all the variety of sizes. They are too innumerable to list here, but let me mention a few: you could find small foolscap, double small, quarto, foolscap long folio. In his research, Briquet found fools caps in paper used in the Upper Rhine provinces dating to 1540. My own research has uncovered watermarks dating from 1478 to 1703; however the earlier date could be from more recent paper as it was found on endpapers used in a rebind. In England, the mark was replaced by the Britannia watermark, being paper exported from the Netherlands. It appears that the mark itself disappears altogether at about 1795.

In the above gallery you will see a variety of fools caps, with caps and braids or with short hair and hats.

Now that there are no watermarks in ordinary writing paper, I think I’ll stick to the standard A sizes!

For more pictures of watermarks click here to visit my Flickr site



Leave a comment

December 9, 2017 · 5:03 am

Driving force of research: strange watermarks and beautiful vignettes.

During the past few years I concentrated my research on books mainly from France, Italy and England. Luck of the draw really. However as my research draws to a close and my book on watermarks is now at the printer, I find myself with nothing to do. Haha , says she! Actually, when is research ever finished?

I have decided to turn my research data into a series of books called the Booksleuth Series. Why not?After all I as a rare book detective I am detecting strange and or usual marks in rare tomes.

These marks, although not that rare in the scheme of things. were all found in books by Spanish authors. The research needs some sort of focus, some sort of purpose. So I will be seeking examples of early Iberian writing in Australia.  I’ll be looking for early texts on theology, probably from Jesuit collections. These are more likely to be bound in vellum, and I can’t wait to see what watermarks are hiding in them.

From NLA collection RBq MISC 179.

I won’t just concentrate on watermarks and bindings. Now that I have a little nit more experience, and curiosity, I will be looking at the chapter headers and the motifs and vignettes used by printers.  Watch this space.

If you know any books worth examining, please send me their titles. Sharing information is one of the main reasons that drives me.


Leave a comment

Filed under bookbinding, libraries, museum, watermarks

The Virgin Mary’s book

I have been collecting binding data ever since 2013, and in July’s post I showed you a watermark of the Virgin holding Baby Jesus. Since then I have scoured online databases and books, without being able to find an exact match. They are not very common, but this particular image remains a mystery.

This is RB MISC 3181 – Ignatii Coutino … : mariale, sive conciones super evangelia festivitatum sacratissimae Virginis Mariae / quas ex idiomate Hispanico in Latinum transtulit Henricus Hechtermans in the National Library of Australia catalogue.

Last year I enrolled in 4 units of Harvard’s online course, The Book: Histories through time and space. One course I particularly liked was Print and Manuscript in Western Europe, Asia and the Middle East (1450-1650). Since the beginning of the year I have ramped up my research, and because of the course I now pay much closer attention to the content. And I am finding frontispieces, layouts and vignettes much more fascinating.

I am in the process of writing a bindings catalogue of the rare book stack, and a watermark compendium. As I find interesting and wonderful items I will keep you posted.

1 Comment

Filed under bookbinding, libraries

Discovering historical bindings

Bonaventura Opera - Italian endbands with beading on spine

Bonaventura Opera – Italian endbands with beading on spine


In my daily line of work I don’t get to be creative and neither do I get to see many books of great rarity. However, over the last year and a half I’ve had the privilege of doing some dusting in the Rare Book stack at the National Library. You would be amazed at the amount of dust that can accumulate on the edges of books!

4 weeks worth of dust

4 weeks worth of dust

Just recently I bought Jane Greenfield‘s ABC of Bookbinding. It contains  drawings of historical structures; it has made a  complicated chain of technical events relatively simple to understand. And it has helped me understand the  interesting discoveries I’ve made in the stack. I can now also use some of the knowledge I gained at Prof Pickwoad’s course at the London Rare Book Summer school, entitled European bookbinding 1450-1830. Here is an example of comb lining:

Comb lining

Comb lining


I never thought I’d see one. I was only able to discover the full extent of this lining because its cover was in a state of disrepair. The lining was made from old hand written parchment, probably recycled from another book or a workshop reject.

recycled parchment lining

recycled parchment lining

more handwritten recycled material for guards

more handwritten recycled material for guards

It’s one thing to read about recycling of historical materials, it’s another to find it.

I am particularly interested in endbands, those decorative bits that sit on the head and tail of the book.


Double endband

Double endband


tied down through parchment lining

tied down through parchment lining

endband tied down through linen reinforcement

endband tied down through linen reinforcement


Sewing endbands gives me particular satisfaction; it’s a bit of  a Zen thing. The silk or cotton that you try to sew around a cord core hides the edge of the spine while you try to make a pretty pattern at the same time. This is what I made:

Endbands as taught in Fine Bookbinding

Endbands as taught in Fine Bookbinding


After viewing some 60 photos of old books someone just asked me this morning if I had any shots of how modern books were made. I had to think for a while. What is striking is that bookbinding as a craft has not changed much in over 400 years. Sure people have become innovative, and fine binders today work with care and precision.


Using old news papers as spine linings


This is not to say that the binders of old didn’t, but i do believe that as printing made it easy for  books to be mass produced, binders were under pressure to keep up with demand, and may be care was not such a premiun need or product for most people.

Last year I presented 2 papers on the books in the rare stack. At the New Zealand Book Symposium I focused on how I applied learned knowledge to identify bindings of the books in the stack, and at the Bibliographic society of Australia and New Zealand conference I shared my excitement at the discoveries I had made.

recycled parchment used as comb lining

recycled parchment used as comb lining

To be frank, I don’t have an affinity with laced in covers. I quite like case binding and simplified binding. However I do like the look of seeing the cords laced into the covers, something modern binders try to hide.

two supports sewn as one

two supports sewn as one

I have hundreds of photos that I could share; but I have neither the time nor the space to do so. What I would really like to do is spend time in the stack cataloguing a sample set of books, describing their bindings in details. But alas, that is not my job!

I’ll leave you with this beauty I found:


Laced in cover, but stitched with alum tawed tongs?

Laced in cover, but stitched with alum tawed tongs?


If I make any more discoveries I’ll let you know.

Leave a comment

Filed under bookbinding, libraries, museum, preservation