19 September 2013

'Wants E8', or Does It?: The Melbourne Copy of the Gesta Romanorum

While working through the University of Melbourne incunabula, I happened upon a rather interesting printing error in one of the library's two fifteenth-century copies (in different editions) of the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of entertaining short stories meant for moral edification.

This particular copy is from an edition by one of the many early printers whom we know not by name, but by a particular work from their press: the Printer of the 1483 'Vitas Patrum' from Strasbourg.[1]

The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) attributes twenty-eight works to his press, and records him as an alternate printer for a further six titles. ISTC gives an approximate date of 'about 1484' for the Gesta, though the Gesamtkatalog der Weigendrucke (GW) takes a slightly more cautious approach, offering a date range of between 1483 and 1486.[2]

E8 or No?
A number of penciled notes are present on the front free endpaper. One comment records that the copy 'wants E8' and that this leaf was replaced with a leaf from another book. Upon a cursory examination, this appears to be the case. Turning to where leaf e8 should be, one finds the following:

This leaf, signed k2, is indeed not from the Gesta, but from an edition of Guido de Columna's Historia destructionis Troiae.

After comparing the text with digitised fifteenth-century editions, I found that the Columna leaf matches that of the Historia printed by none other than the Printer of the 1483 'Vitas Patrum', the date given as 'about 1483 ... Also recorded as [about 1485]' in ISTC (the later date provided in GW).[3]

How did leaf k2 of the Historia wind up in the Gesta?

The answer, which changes, not solves, the question, was found on the verso of the leaf:

This text does not correspond to k2v in Columna's Historia, but rather to the text of e8v in the Gesta. Leaf e8, therefore, is not missing at all. Instead, an incorrect text was printed on the other side of the sheet of paper. To confirm my suspicions, I checked the conjugate leaf (e1):



The text on e1r corresponds to the Gesta, while the text on the verso matches k7v in the Historia.

With the conjugate leaves confirmed, the question became not how did a single leaf of the Historia find its way into the Gesta, but how did a sheet of paper come to have text from two different books printed on two different sides, and be published as part of a complete copy?

Unlike ... 'perfected' copies, this sort of confusion is not one that would result from someone making up a copy later from parts of defective copies. It seems certain, therefore, that the error happened in the printing house, and is likely to have been present ever since the book left the warehouse over 500 years ago.

One possible explanation is that the two titles were in print simultaneously and there was a mix-up in the half-printed paper stacks. Perhaps a printer removed the sheet in order to check it and then mistakenly returned it to the wrong stack of paper, or maybe a few sheets were mixed up before the printer realised there was a problem. As the error does not appear in the three digitised copies I used for comparison, the problem was obviously caught and corrected, but not before the Melbourne copy somehow slipped past the corrector.

Instead of a mix-up in the paper stacks, could the sheet in question be in an earlier state?

Shef Rogers, who teaches in the Department of English and Linguistics at the University of Otago suggested:

'You would ... need to check the text of the e sides [in multiple copies] of the later-printed title (if you think the dating of that title as later is correct; if not, you cannot presume an order) to see whether a printer might have simply grabbed a spare sheet of paper (blank on one side, but used on the other and therefore no good for book work, but fine for a proof) and printed the e2/e7 side to proof. Ideally, you'd locate textual variants that might indicate a sense of directionality that would let you determine whether your sheet is the earlier or later state. As a proof sheet, one would expect it to be the earlier state. Of course, there may be no variants, and then the whole hypothesis becomes untestable'.

To resolve the issue would take a census of the surviving copies of the Gesta and Historia in the Printer of the 1483 'Vitas Patrum' editions, to see if the oddly imposed sheet is present elsewhere. It is, however, unlikely that I will be able to take up such a task, so I leave such work (as tempting and appealing as it is) to someone with easier access to other copies and with more knowledge of fifteenth-century printing practices.


[1] A. W. Pollard, in his introduction to the first volume of the BMC, noted the possibility that the texts attributed to the Printer of the 1483 'Vitas Patrum' could have come from the press of another Strasbourg printer, Johann Grüninger. He admitted, however, that 'the evidence for positively assigning them to him is insufficient' (1:xix).

[2] Gesta Romanorum [Strasbourg: Printer of the 1483 'Vitas Patrum', about 1484]; ISTC ig00287000, GW 10892.

[3] Guido de Columna. Historia destructionis Troiae [Strasbourg: Printer of the 1483 'Vitas Patrum', about 1483]; ISTC ic00772000, GW 7229.

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