Letters in Wood
Collectors of blockbooks
MS. Hearne's diaries vol. 50: Thomas Hearne's notes on early printing, , pp. 16-27.
Thomas Hearne was a librarian at the Bodleian Library in the 1710s. He wrote these notes about the history of printing, as he understood it, in 1714.
A fragment of a Biblia Pauperum blockbook (BB-5) that Hearne had acquired from the bookseller and collector John Bagford is pasted into this volume, where it is used to illustrate his discussion of the earliest printing ink, the use of colour in printed books, and the practice of printing blockbooks on one side of the paper only, so that the leaves could be hung up in churches, chapels, and houses.
[p. 19c] We see here that the Ink is very pale, and the words hardly legible, by wh[ch] it may appear how difficult a matter they found it at first to bring their Ink to any firm Substance; and that may be the reason that they printed only upon one side, and afterwards when they bound their Books they pasted the Back of one Leaf to another. But there is also another Reason that made them print only on one side, & that I take to have been this. I look upon the original design of printing these fragments of Scripture with Pictures to have been for the use of such as had a mind to have such things hung up in their Houses. Now therefore being printed only on one side they might have them fixed up in any place, either in their own Houses, or in Churches or Chapells. I say in Churches or Chapells, because I look upon these Extracts out of Scripture to have been much of the same nature with those Sentences that were formerly painted on the walls of all Churches, that the || [p. 20] the People might fix them in their memories, and often think upon the Doctrines contained in them. Indeed these small Sheets of Paper were not large enough to have the same End as the former if they were to have be placed at any distance from those that desired both to see and read them, and therefore I believe they were fixed in some low places of the Church, Chapell or House; and afterwards several of them being gathered together instead of fixing them up in such places they judged it more convenient to past several together, & to have them bound up and afterwards lodged in such Places as they found most convenient, where such as would might have recourse for reading & [viewing] || [p. 21] viewing them & meditating upon the things couched under the several Sentences and Emblems. And I take those two Books of ours in Bodley to have been such, namely to have been single sheets wrought off first at different times, and sold singly, & afterwards collected together, & bound up and placed in some room for the use of such Readers as come with a desire to peruse them.
Now that which confirms me in my Notion about these Books being placed thus in Churches, Chapells, & Houses for public use is this, that in after times we had other Books in Folio (of common Printing) placed in Churches, and they had Pictures (from wooden Cutts) on purpose (as I take it) not only to illustrate the several Histories, but to please the vulgar or such Persons as were not able to read. Such illiterate Persons tho' they could not read [them] || [p. 22] themselves, yet having heard the Stories either read or told by others, they would afterwards ruminate upon the whole, and were able to recollect each Passage the better by having a view of the Pictures. And that is the true Reason of so many Pictures in Fox's Book of Martyrs, not so much for the sake of learned and judicious Readers (for several of them are ridiculous to such) but for the sake of common People who are more affected with such Emblems than with a bare narrative, and when both are joyned together they have generally a very good Effect upon them. So that this work being formerly placed in Churches to be read and perused by all that || [p. 23] came, both such as could not read were instructed by only a bare view of the Pictures, and such as could read were the better able by such Pictures to imprint the stories in their own Memories and by the help of them be the better capacitated to relate and clear the several Stories to others.
Altho' the Fragment, inserted above (which I received from Mr Bagford) be not coloured, yet those Books in Bodley are coloured (yet rudely) and that too, I think, by the Illuminators. For Illuminators continued for some time after || [p. 24] printing was found out; nay even after it had been advanced to a very considerable Perfection, it being left off by Degrees, as People began to disuse the Imitation both of the common and illuminated Letters, as well as the Pictures, in MSS. || [p. 25]
I mention this Disuse because I am really of opinion, that (notwithstanding there is no such Custom now) in the infancy of Printing they imitated (as near as possibly they could) the Make both of the Pictures and of the Letters that they found in MSS. We have in Bodley a MS. of the Apocalypse (in Latin) with Pictures done much as those are in the above mentioned two printed Books in the [same] || [p. 26] same Library, and the Sentences are accordingly written scatteringly as those are in the same printed Books. And I do not doubt but th[yt] Tully's Offices of the first Ed. was, as to the Letters, done just as they found the MS. whatever may become of that MS since. Yet after they had cast a Font of Letter for that Book, it was afterwards made use of for others. If this || [p. 27] be true, (as I see no reason, at present, to question) I gather from the make of the Letter that the said MS. (whence 'twas copied) was, at least, five hundred Years old. And as they imitated the MSS. for the black Letter; so likewise did they imitate other MSS. for the white Letter, though these MSS. were of a much later Date, the white Letter in MSS. being used not long before printing had been found out. || [p. 28]
Just as I was writing down these Notes about Printing Mr Bagford gave me an old Printed Fragment of the Canon Law, with a Commentary. This Fragment (which I have here inserted) is printed on Vellam, & it confirms, what I said about ye black Letter. For I || [p. 29] am inclined to believe that 'twas taken from the MS. and that the Letters and abbreviations are all truly and faithfully represented just as they were written in the MS. And being printed on Vellam, I must also beg leave to note that formerly (when printing was first brought [up] || [p. 30] up) they did not print upon better, or larger, Paper than ordinary; but if they designed any Copies (either for Patrons, or other Friends, or any curious Persons [wt]soever) to be of more than common Value (with respect to the Matter upon which printed) they did, in such Cases, always print, what Number they had occasion for, on vellam; and after [this] || [p. 31 blank, p. 32] this Printing upon Paper only (excepting now and then) came to be wholly in Fashion and then instead of Books on Vellam, for particular Persons, they had a certain Number printed upon a better Paper than ordinary, which are commonly called Books on large Paper. Yet I must here withall note that one [reason] || [p. 33] reason of their Printing, when the Art was first found out, upon Vellam was also, on purpose, to imitate the MSS. they made use of, w[ch] being written on Vellam they thought the Books, they printed, would be the more esteemed, and bear the more Authority, if they not only observed the very Form and Make of the Letter, but likewise made use of Vellam, at least for [some] || [p. 34] some Copies, and this Vellam was always of the better Sort, as near as they could, as fine and as valuable as the Vellam of the MSS. that they imitated.