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Early Printing Collection

Early English Printing

William Caxton

The Early Printing Collection includes one of three known perfect copies of a book printed by William Caxton in 1479, three years after he set up his press at Westminster and became the first printer in England. It is a book of meditation on death entitled Cordiale or the Four last thinges and was translated by his patron Earl Rivers. It was bought with the help of generous gifts from various trusts and local firms and individuals in 1978, and is a fine addition to the collection.

The works of Caxton's successors in England may be seen, for example, in the Policronicon printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1495 and The Ship of Folys printed by Richard Pynson in 1509.

Colonna, Hypnerotomachia, 1499

Early Italian Printing

Early Italian printing may be recognised at its best in St Augustines De civitate Dei printed by the first printers in Italy, Sweynheym and Pannartz, in Rome in 1470, and in Plinys Historia naturale printed by Nicolas Jenson of Venice (1476). Jenson was an important source of inspiration for William Morris and T J Cobden-Sanderson, two of the leading figures of the private press movement in England at the end of the nineteenth century. Equally inspirational was the most famous book of the Italian Renaissance, the Hypnerotomachia (the strife of love in a dream) by Francesco Colonna, in a mixture of Latin, Greek and Italian. It was printed in Venice by the leading scholarly printing house of Aldus Manutius in 1499, and illustrated by fantastical woodcuts.

Cosmographia by Ptolemy, 1482 edition

Early German Printing

Early printing in Germany is well represented by amongst others the Cosmographia of Ptolemy, printed at Ulm by Lienhart Holle in 1482, with hand-coloured maps engraved in wood; the Nuremberg Chronicle published by Anton Koberger in 1493, with its 1809 woodcuts by Wolgemuth and Pleydenwurff and his earlier publication the Latin Bible of 1478, with its illuminations in the style of medieval manuscripts. The most splendidly illustrated book to be published in Germany was surely the Teuerdank of 1517 which can be seen in this collection in a fine copy on vellum.

Other early printed books

Braun and Hogenberg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, 1576

These books cover a wide range of subjects. They include herbals and botanical books for example, both editions of John Gerard's Herball (1597 and 1633), and John Evelyn's Sylva (2nd edition 1670) on the cultivation of trees and geographical and travel books, such as the Voyages of Linschoten (1598) and a hand-coloured edition of Braun and Hogenbergs Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1576) with its contemporary plans and views of towns and cities of the known world.

There are local topographical and historical works such as Camden's Britannia, published from 1586 onwards. Edward Hall's Chronicles (1548) and Holinshed's Chronicles (1577 and 1586-7) were both sources for Shakespeare to draw on for the subjects of his plays. Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563) was approved reading for the Sabbath, despite its gory woodcuts.

Hobbes Leviathan, 1651

A large collection of political and religious pamphlets from the Civil War period reveals the controversies of the time and the progress of the military action. Daily events from 1665 can be traced in the earliest issues of The London Gazette. A set of Moxon's Mechanical Exercises (1677-83) explains in detail with illustrations the metal and wood-working crafts and trades of the time, including printing. Cookery books like Hannah Woolley's The Queen-like closet (1684) provide recipes and housekeeping lore. The obscurantist studies of the mystical philosopher Robert Fludd, illustrated by woodcuts of his anatomies, contrasts with the first edition of Hobbess Leviathan (1651), a work of political theory published during the Commonwealth period.

Georgius Agricola, De re metallica, 1657

The various Polyglot Bibles are masterpieces of printing synchronised texts in ancient languages. Christopher Plantin in Antwerp (1569-1572) printed the texts in 8 volumes in 5 languages, and at Eton (1654-57) under the directorship of Brian Walton the texts were translated into 9 languages.

For the history of science there are contemporary editions of the work of Robert Boyle as they came out and the mathematical works of Thomas Digges (1573), of Edmund Gunter in the 17th century and practical works like Robert Record's Arithmetick (1646). The rare account of mining and metallurgy by Georgius Agricola, De re metallica (Basle, 1657) is illustrated by lively woodcuts of workmen and processes. A London edition of Galileo's Sidereus nuncios (1653) represents revolutionary astronomy.

For early editions of Shakespeare, see the Birmingham Shakespeare Library.


Book of Hours, Missale, 1450

A small collection of manuscripts includes eight medieval illuminated books. One, a Psalter, written in Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century, contains the arms of the Medici family. A Psalter is a volume containing the "Book of Psalms" and which often contains other devotional material. Another, a Dutch Book of Hours, was probably illuminated by Jan Spierinc in 1502. A Book of Hours is a common surviving type of medieval illuminated manuscript. Each is unique, but all contain a collection of texts, prayers and psalms, along with appropriate illustrations, a private prayer book for a Catholic Christian.

Atlases and Maps


Atlases of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries gradually revealed the new European discoveries of lands and seas in Africa, Asia, North and South America and mapped out profitable trade routes throughout the known world.

The large collection of early atlases was in the main generously donated by Alderman W A Cadbury during the 1920s and 1930s. It includes an atlas published by A. Lafreri in Rome (1553 80) which contains five unique maps found in no other surviving copy. Amongst his other gifts were a number of early editions of Ptolemy, some hand-coloured and dating from the Venetian edition of 1475, and a Mercator atlas of 1633. This is hand coloured, printed in Amsterdam and orientated according to his new projection which more accurately aligned longitude and latitude. The earliest English marine atlas, the Mariners Mirrour (1588), nicknamed a Waggoner, was based on a Dutch atlas by Wagenaer, and the later more comprehensive French marine atlas was called Le Neptune franis (1693). The finely coloured and decorated Grand Atlas by Blaeu in 12 volumes (1667) was an earlier acquisition, and the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, an atlas by John Speed (1614) was presented by Paul Cadbury in 1966.

The map collection, including the library's unique copy of Christopher Saxton's wall map of Great Britain (1583) - pictured above - is now housed in the Library of Birmingham. Saxton's atlas of maps of England and Wales (1579) is available in two hand-coloured copies.

Early Printing Collection: Atlases and Parish Libraries
Fine Printing
Illustrated Books and Bindings
Early and Fine Printing