Institutional knowledge is an awesome thing and something that is often taken for granted and/or overlooked. I recently learned a cool story surrounding one of the rare books housed in Special Collections, thanks to former Dean of W&M Libraries, Nancy Marshall.
During the War of 1812, Peter Wilson, the surgeon aboard the British ship Moselle, looted the medical textbook, An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolæ Vaccinæ, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of the Cow Pox, by Edward Jenner, M.D., from Denbigh Plantation in Newport News.
The significance of this book is that it focuses on vaccination, which at that time was a very new cure for smallpox. The volume was passed down through Wilson’s family, ultimately coming into the possession of his great-granddaughter, who lived in New Zealand. The book was acquired from her by a New Zealand physician. Historian, author, and friend to W&M Libraries, Spotswood H. Jones of Gloucester, spent two decades researching the history of the book and ultimately discovered its New Zealand location.
Upon learning that Library Dean Nancy Marshall would be traveling to New Zealand in October 1990, Jones, who named the volume “The Looted Book,” reached out to the owner and asked if he might be willing to return the book to its homeland, via Marshall. He agreed. Since its return to Virginia, the volume has resided in the Special Collections Research Center in Swem Library.
For more information about “The Looted Book,” please read the William & Mary News article from December 1990 (page 5), found here: https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/19661
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What do Indiana Jones and the Content Services Mosaic Intern have in common? We both spend our days searching for historical treasure: in my case that involves paging through old texts—often plain or even dirty in appearance—researching their autographs and marginalia, and mining valuable snippets of the lives of people important to both our local and national history. Occasionally, I do have the opportunity to handle a book whose cover reflects its treasure inside, like the Canon Missae ad Usum Episcorum, ac Praelatorum Solemniter, vel Private Celebrantium (1755), donated by Ralph H. Wark and Patrick Hayes.
The Canon Missae, or Canon of the Mass, is part of the Roman Missal, the liturgical text for the celebration of the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church. This edition, as was common until the the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), is written wholly in Ecclesiastical Latin.
In addition to the text are engraved vignettes and full-page illustrations, rich with sacred and allegorical scenes.For example, the vignette to the left depicts the authority of the Catholic Church as given by God. Underneath the wings of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, rest two female figures who appear to be a double allegorical representation of the Catholic Church or papacy. Veiled, the woman on the left shows the Church as the bride of Christ. She holds a cross as well as a chalice and host, signifying the Sacraments of the Catholic Church. The woman on the right rests her hand on an anchor, a symbol of the Church’s authority. At the center of the vignette, directly beneath the Holy Spirit, lies the papal insignia.
Most of the full-page engravings were signed by a woman, Suor [Sister] Isabella Piccini. Elisabetta Piccini (1644-1734), who later took the name Isabella when she entered the Convent of Santa Croce, learned her artistic skill from her father, Giacomo, a Venetian engraver. She contributed engravings to many liturgical books, biographies of saints, and prayer manuals published in Venice. (Although one may find it strange that Suor Isabella’s work predates this book, it was not uncommon for plates of engravings to be reused in printings.)In the image seen here on the right, Suor Isabella masterfully depicts the Seventh Station of the Cross: Jesus falls the second time. Take time to look at each individual. With the halo drawing the viewer’s eyes to Jesus’s face at the center of the engraving, one sees sweat and tears and exhaustion. Follow Christ’s eyesight to the woman in the bottom left-hand corner staring back worriedly. Look at the cloth she is holding, which bears the face of Jesus. The imagery identifies the woman as Veronica. Let your eyes roam over the expressions of the soldiers. Suor Isabella leaves no doubt as to what each person is feeling in that moment.
I could go on—this article barely scratches the surface of the magnificence of this Canon Missae—but I think this is something you should see in person. Bonus: Swem Library holds two other editions! Come discover these breathtaking treasures yourself at Special Collections.
Written by Olivia Jameson, Mosaic Intern
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With a goal of not only collecting and preserving texts and objects for future generations, the Special Collections Research Center is devoted to acquiring books and artifacts that can benefit instruction at William & Mary. Chinese scrolls, facsimiles of medieval texts, and a replica of Dead Sea scrolls are just a few examples of items in the SCRC that faculty have frequently used in their teaching. The SCRC recently acquired copies of two important historical texts, and Professor Jeremy Pope provides insight on how exciting and useful these works are for both faculty and student use:
These two 19th-century series that Swem has purchased both capture moments of exceptional importance in the history of Western perception of Africa, and they will be centerpieces in the upper-level lecture course that I have taught for the past eight years, “HIST 320: Nubia Americana: An African Kingdom in American Thought, 1627-present.”
The volumes published by Frédéric Cailliaud in 1826-1827 are from the infancy of European exploration into the interior of the African continent, long before the advent of scientific archaeological excavation. At that time, Western knowledge of the African past was heavily dependent upon the fragmentary testimony of ancient Greek and Roman authors who had never traveled south of Egypt—men like Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder. Authors like Pliny perceived the more distant reaches of Africa as realms of monstrous abnormality, while others like Diodorus traced the roots of ancient Egyptian civilization to an even more ancient “Ethiopia”—the term Greeks used to refer to the vast territory south of Egypt, including especially the region of Sudan that scholars today call “Nubia.” Diodorus’s text was widely debated in early modern Europe and America, motivating several European explorers to lose their lives in search of Meroe, the ancient capital city of Ethiopia as recorded in Greek texts. At the end of a long and dangerous voyage in 1822, Frédéric Cailliaud became the first Westerner in modern times to visit and document the ruins of ancient Meroe, and he was so overcome with emotion that he started weeping uncontrollably at first sight of them. In the past, I have had to resign myself to merely telling my students about Cailliaud’s discovery, but thanks to Swem’s recent purchase I can now show students the artful, sepia-tone and hand-painted volumes that Cailliaud published upon his return to announce his discovery—including a rare, tipped-in letter signed in Cailliaud’s own hand!
The volumes published by Richard Lepsius in 1849-1859 cut in a very different direction. Following in the wake of explorers like Cailliaud, Lepsius organized a research expedition into Egypt and “Ethiopia” (Nubia), but unlike so many of his predecessors, Lepsius was trained in the new discipline of Egyptology and could therefore translate the ancient hieroglyphic writing inscribed upon the monuments at Meroe. As a result, he reached a very different conclusion: Lepsius claimed that Diodorus’s account had been wrong, and that the visible monuments and inscriptions in Nubia were instead the result of Egyptian culture diffusing into the south. Lepsius’s pronouncements would not be the final word on the subject, but they had a deep impact upon scholarly and public opinion for more than a century. Moreover, Lepsius’s project was generously funded by the Prussian government, so that he was able to use the new and expensive techniques of chromolithography to promote his findings in sumptuous, full-color prints and detailed maps on truly enormous folio pages. The volumes are entitled Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien (Monuments from Egypt and Ethiopia), but, because of their size and expense, they are equally monuments of 19th-century Prussian nationalism in a European competition for global scientific leadership. It is nearly impossible to find a complete set for purchase today, so Swem has instead acquired faithful reprints that my students will examine during the course. Instead of showing them mere PowerPoint images, I can now let the students experience the materiality of these books as monuments in their own right.
“You work at the library? So, do you put books away and stuff?”
Er – no.
While our vast collection of books is one of the astonishing things that I love about Earl Gregg Swem Library, on a normal day I am usually sliding between computer screens, meetings, and the occasional trip to the Daily Grind.
I enjoy the ‘Burg’s sweltering summer heat while staying cool in Special Collections. As one of the four undergraduate Mosaic Summer Interns, I have been partnered with my mentor Carmen Bolt, W&M Libraries’ Oral Historian. We’ve worked together to research, prepare, and conduct oral histories, which is a neat way of saying we audio- and visually-record people’s unique stories about William & Mary; so far these individuals have included alumni and faculty.
I’ve also gotten the chance to work in different departments of the library: I have helped curate an exhibit in the library for the 50th anniversary of African Americans in residence, and I even took a class with fellow students and faculty, creating a mural for the 50th!
This internship has given me a chance to learn many skills and open my eyes to see librarianship in a new way. Being in spaces surrounded by the history and narratives of others–and learning more about how we present these memories–has all allowed me to create a more complete view of my Self Design Interdisciplinary major: Digital Storytelling. I’m so glad I took this opportunity and worked with such a wonderful and supportive team! Swem Library will forever be a home inside of my green and gold home!
Written by Mosaic Intern Azana Carr
From the warm and welcoming reading room to the frigid ground floor stacks, the Special Collections Research Center offers a wealth of historical resources, right at the heart of campus. I am grateful to have the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes look at the SCRC and explore many of its treasures this summer through Swem Library’s Mosaic Internship Program.
As an intern in William & Mary Libraries’ External Relations Office, I am writing several articles that will be featured in the W&M Libraries’ biennial report, slated to come out this December. While working on these articles, I have talked with many members of the W&M community, including the SCRC’s Oral Historian Carmen Bolt, Music Librarian Kathleen DeLaurenti, and the new Vice Chair of the W&M Libraries Board of Directors, John Johnson. Between juggling the various other assigned writing projects, I have examined many collections in the SCRC as I work on a story about W&M alumni collectors who have donated their collections to the university.
I knew working on the article would be a lengthy project, not only because it would take time to get in touch with several alumni and interview them, but also because I wanted to familiarize myself with their collections beforehand. Over the past several weeks I have taken many trips to the SCRC to look at a variety of collections: documents signed by 17th– and 18th– century Virginian governors, film posters from the 1930s-1970s, and American almanacs published during the Revolutionary War, to name a few.
The first alumnus I reached out to was Barry Martin, a 1959 graduate who initially donated manuscripts to the W&M History Department before later donating a large collection of books on the American Revolution to the SCRC. When I interviewed him on the phone, he was delighted to recall his experiences as a young collector and student at W&M. Martin had been interested in the American Revolution from a young age, leading to his first purchase at age 13 of a document featuring John Quincy Adams’s signature. Reflecting on his time as a W&M student, Martin recalled that the campus library was much smaller, as it was located at what is now Tucker Hall. Martin also spoke of his American history professors with great admiration, reminding me of the importance of educators (like professors and librarians) in telling and preserving the stories of our past for future students.
I also had the pleasure of viewing a collection of lantern slides and stereoviews donated by 1971 alumnus, Kelvin Ramsey. I had never heard of a stereoview before, and was intrigued to find out that it is an instrument used to create a 3D illusion. Ramsey’s slide and stereoview collection features a wide variety of images, including Virginia landmarks, tobacco farms, and even Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt. Ramsey, a geologist, has visited just about every county and corner in Virginia, and his collection reflects his admiration for Virginia history and culture.
I look forward to hearing about the experiences of the other alumni I have yet to interview. As I continue to talk with more and more people from the W&M community, a common thread among these narratives becomes clear: Virginia is our home. Not only a home to W&M, but a home to a revolutionary spirit that I hope will live on for centuries to come. It has been exciting for me to take a firsthand look at these documentations of history, and I hope that others who have the opportunity to visit the SCRC feel as engaged and inspired by its collections as I do. As I reflect on my time at this internship, I have realized a newfound appreciation for the SCRC’s efforts to preserve and document Virginia history. And as a native Virginian, I am proud to call Virginia my home, sweet home.
Written by Alea Al-Aghbari, Mosaic Intern
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What is the difference between printing and publishing?
This is perhaps something many of us don’t think about, but there is a difference. After all, we now speak of things being published on the internet, so there is not an inherent relationship between print and publication, at least not anymore. Two documents from the Thomas G. and Louise Rowe Pullen collection perfectly illustrate how important news was published in the past, and they do so with reference to the process by which our own William and Mary went from being Prince and Princess of Orange to King and Queen.
In November of 1688, William, Prince of Orange, landed an army in England to confront his father-in-law and uncle, James II of England, VII of Scotland. The Catholic James had become deeply unpopular, and many thought he was a danger both to Parliament and to Protestantism. James fled the country, and debates began about what should happen. Should he be succeeded by his daughter, Mary, or by her husband? In the end, the Convention Parliament that had been called to resolve the crisis offered the crown jointly to William and Mary, making them the only joint monarchs in English history.These documents show how that decision became public knowledge. On one hand we have the printed declaration, explaining how and why the decision has been taken, and proclaiming William and Mary King and Queen of England, France and Ireland. Yet that document has been altered by someone writing on it, which tells us that all of this was publicly proclaimed before the printed text was posted:
“This was proclaimed solemnly on Wensday the 13th of Febry 1688 about 11 a clock in the forenoon at Whitehall Gate by the Herald in the presence of the Lds & Commons, and immediately after within Temple bar, in Cheapside, and at the R. Exchange. The Ld Mayr Recorder & Aldermen being also present at the three last places with the said Lords & Commons”
These were all public places – the Palace of Whitehall in the City of Westminster, and several locations in the City of London – a ceremonial gate, a major market, and the stock exchange. So the first news was published vocally, and in the presence of a lot of important men.
The next stage was the publication of the printed text. A document from the same collection, signed by the members of the Privy Council, is the order to post printed proclamations like the one discussed above. The document was to be “published in the usual places” so that it could be read as well as heard, and everyone should then know that William and Mary were now the King and Queen.
Swem Library holds two editions of A grammar of the English tongue, with the arts of logick, rhetoric, poetry, &c., but it is in the earlier one, printed in 1714, that we find something unexpected and extraordinary. This volume belonged to Samuel Clark, who, according to Alumni Oxonienses by J. Foster, matriculated at St. John’s College, Oxford in 1725 at age 18, graduated BA in 1729, MA in 1733, and BD in 1738. That he was a fellow of the college we know only because he told us so with his autograph on the flyleaf: Sam:[ue]ll Clark e Coll:[egium] Di:[vi] Jo:[annis] Bap:[tisti] Soc:[ius] Oxon.[ienses].
On the verso of the flyleaf appear two columns of manuscript letters in what this cataloguer took to be a Gothic alphabet, but soon all would be made clear, as on further examination of the book, a remarkable artifact of Mr. Clark’s infatuation with the written word appeared: Tipped in following the preface was a manuscript chart of alphabets in use from the middle ages through the Renaissance! Ruled in pencil and filled in with careful ink strokes, Clark transcribed examples of several hands, mostly used by government scribes. Paleography is always a puzzle because of the individuality of writers. Those who study ancient forms of handwriting can never have enough examples, and evidently Samuel Clark was attempting to record the best cheat sheet for his time. As such, it is of great value to the 21st-century researcher and cataloguer. (For the curious, his practice alphabet, completed only through the letter “h,” was taken from the Exchequer hand.)
Written by Ellen Cloyed, Serials and Rare Books Cataloguer
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Many of the treasures in Special Collections don’t actually live in the stacks downstairs but are instead housed in Swem Library’s Offsite Stacks (SOSS). Most materials are kept in SOSS either because they are infrequently requested through Special Collections or have specific requirements for the environment in which they must be housed. However, SOSS contains materials just as intriguing as items found in the regular stacks, so it’s a treat to go through some of the lesser known materials held there.
Earlier this year, a box belonging to the Chapin-Horowitz dog book collection arrived from SOSS to have its contents evaluated. Inside were quite a few interesting and old books, all with unique histories and subjects, but the book that immediately caught my eye was a Yiddish children’s book printed in 1920 in Bialystok, Poland. The small book, דאס לעבּן פֿוּן די חיוס, בּינגא, א געשיִכטע פֿוּן א הוּנט, (Dus Lebn Fun Die Chias, Bingo, A Geschichte Fun A Hunt) is a translation of a chapter of British-American author Ernest Thompson Seton’s (1860-1946) Wild Animals I Have Known. Outside of its historical context the publication of a children’s book translated into Yiddish may seem inconsequential. Yet this book marks an important period in the development of contemporary Yiddish literature and linguistic practice for Jewish communities in Lithuania, Poland, and Belarus.
The end of World War I and the relaxation of Czarist anti-Semitic policies following the Soviet victory during the Russian Revolution led to an incredible growth of secular Yiddish culture in Eastern Europe. In 1921 Bundists and a coalition of other leftist parties in Warsaw created the TSYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization) which functioned as an institution responsible for creating new secular Yiddish language schools for Jews in Poland and parts of Lithuania and Belarus. The Bundists pushed for a very strong Yiddish education curriculum even before the establishment of the TSYSHO and began publishing secular stories for children years before its founding. Yiddish already had a rich secular literary tradition in the early twentieth century but considering the volume of new Yiddish material for schoolchildren that the Bundists and TSYSHO desired to release, there simply wasn’t enough material; thus, translating popular literature from other languages—rather than commissioning Yiddish authors—became a more viable and faster alternative. Consequently, popular children’s novelists from world literature like Ernest Thompson Seton became quick favorites.
Wild Animals I Have Known, specifically this section about a dog named Bingo, may be the earliest dog book written in Yiddish, thereby establishing itself as an important and unique addition to the Chapin-Horowitz dog book collection. Without organizations like the TSYSHO, pop literature and culture associated with the Yiddish language in Eastern Europe may not have survived to the extent that it has today, and the role of book publishing in maintaining dwindling minority languages like Yiddish is clearly evident. After the horrors of the Second World War, only about half of Europe’s Yiddish speakers survived. Still, only about a million and a half of the Jewish diaspora today speak Eastern Yiddish, compared to 13 million before the start of the Second World War. Despite the decimation of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, contemporary Yiddish pop literature persists, thanks both to the Yiddish schools as well as the large volume of non-religious Yiddish books published by the Bundists and TSYSHO. Support from these programs during the interwar period allow for materials like Wild Animals I Have Known to exist as tools not only for enjoyment but also as sources for language revitalization and reclamation within the Jewish Eastern European diaspora.
The Yiddish version of Wild Animals I Have Known can be found at Swem Library’s Special Collections. Online versions of the English original are available through the Swem catalog and a physical copy can be found in Swem’s stacks.
Written by Daniil Eliseev.
On the fourth of July, 1698, an expedition set out from Scotland. The small group of ships set a course for the Isthmus of Darien in modern-day Panama, intending to create a Scottish colony that would be an overland trading link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans–a seventeenth-century Panama Canal.
Outside the enthusiasm of the Scots, there was a distinct lack of support for the plan. English and Dutch investors had been forced out by English East India Company pressure, and the Spanish were less than pleased about a colony in an area they claimed to own. So funding was withdrawn, English colonies were ordered not to help the Scots, and Spain prepared military intervention.
Naturally, the Scottish people, many of whom had invested in the expedition, were unhappy. They attempted to have the Scottish Parliament pressure the English for help. In order to appease English and Dutch commercial interests and to avoid war with Spain, King William III of England (who was also King William II of Scotland and founder of the College of William and Mary), stalled.
The man he put in charge of running the Parliament in Scotland, James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry, delayed the opening in May by saying that the carriages, horses, and so on needed for the ceremony were not yet ready. When Parliament finally met, the king’s supporters began with religious matters, which kept the business of providing support to the Darien colony from coming up for several days. Finally, Queensberry claimed that he had a sore throat and also needed to consult the king, and adjourned the session until the 20th of June. By the 28th of that month, news arrived in Edinburgh that the colony had surrendered to the Spanish–it was too late. The damage done to the Scottish economy was considerable, and historians attribute the passage of the Act of Union in 1707, which created the United Kingdom, in part to payments made to cover these debts.
These events explain the letter just acquired by Special Collections through the Thomas G. and Louise Rowe Pullen Fund. In it, William tells Queensberry that he is sending a long official letter, but wants to send this one in his hand to say how happy he is with Queensberry’s conduct. The King assures him of his friendship and esteem, and promises not to miss an opportunity to prove it. We can read this letter as offering congratulations and gratitude for Queensberry’s success in dealing with the Scots, so incensed by the English sabotage of their colony in the Americas. And we also know that the King rewarded Queensberry the next year with the Order of the Garter, the highest order of knighthood. In England.
It may seem like Spanish empire in the Americas would have little to do with European politics, but we should not assume that the Atlantic world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was any less global than our own. As noted in a previous post, the publication in Europe of different editions of Bartolomé de Las Casas’s description of Spanish colonialism was linked to both conflict with Spain and sovereignty and border politics a long way from Mexico.
Another new arrival to Special Collections’ Las Casas collection is a perfect example of these European concerns. It is a Venetian edition of the text, printed in 1626. While we may think of Venice as being a long way from the problems of the people of Mexico, it was in frequent conflict with Spain; so books like this would have been popular. Due to a variety of circumstances, largely based on inheritance, the Spanish crown in the seventeenth century also controlled considerable territory in Italy, as well as in the Low Countries and in what is now eastern France. Venice and Spain were therefore rivals for influence in and control of the Italian peninsula. In this case the printer took the unusual step of making a dual-text edition. The new acquisition is printed in two columns, one in Spanish and one in Italian. So although this was acquired by the library to be used in Hispanic Studies and History classes, if there is anyone who understands one of those languages and wants to learn the other while reading descriptions of Spanish imperial activities in Mexico, we now have the perfect resource.
Other boundary disputes were less about power than money. Many of us are familiar with pirated DVDs made outside the country of origin so as to avoid copyright, but what about books? Two of the editions of Las Casas in Special Collections illustrate just how this happened in the late seventeenth century. A French translation was published in Paris in 1697, dedicated to the Comte de Toulouse, illegitimate son of Louis XIV. It received the ‘Privilege du Roi,’ a form of copyright that prevented anyone else in France from printing this book for ten years. However, French rules about who could print a book did not apply outside France, and the Dutch Republic, a short voyage away across the Spanish Netherlands, was known for copying French books. Which is why we also have a copy of the same book, right down to the dedication to Toulouse, printed in Amsterdam in 1698. Publication was profitable, and French was spoken throughout Europe. If someone else had done all the work of translation, all the Amsterdam printer had to do was buy a copy of the original and pay his compositor to replicate it and his pressmen to print it. In a globalising world that still had national boundaries, even books were worth pirating, and one as popular as Las Casas, absolument.
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The College of William and Mary was founded before the City of Williamsburg, the former in 1693, the latter in 1699. The original of this map, however, was made at some point before 1683, and was used by the Lords of Trade and Foreign Plantations in London in their administration of the colonies. It shows the area where Williamsburg and the College would be built, at least a decade before they came into being. This was often the only sort of documentation people in London had access to about places they had never seen themselves.
The original of this manuscript map is held by the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, and makes up part of a collection of maps known as “The Blathwayt Atlas.” This was a combination of print and manuscript maps, used by the Lords of Trade, but taken home and kept by William Blathwayt, from whom the collection takes its name. The copy in Special Collections is part of a facsimile that was produced using state-of-the-art technology in the 1970s, with commentary by Jeannette Black. It represents a technology of sharing information and images that is in most respects superseded by modern computers – Brown now makes these maps available in high-resolution scans through their website. However, the facsimile, showing the collection of maps used in running England’s colonies in the Americas, is still interesting as an indication of the technology available to people both in the 1680s and in the 1970s for storing and sharing knowledge.
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Swem Library has a great many books in very bad bindings. Most modern books, for instance, are held together only by glue at the spine. Even modern hardcovers have the same binding. Other than the hard shell surrounding them, they are in all other respects exactly the same as a cheap paperback. In the past, however, bindings were much stronger.
Special Collections also has books that have bad bindings, but in many cases their poor condition is due to the fact they are old enough to have been damaged by time or handling. One example shows how this process happens, and also the way the book was made over five hundred years ago, in 1498. Even if the binding is in trouble now, five centuries is not a bad run.
The bumps on the spine of an old book are not just decorative. They are cords, and the pages are sewn to them, so that they are actually integral to the structure. Here they are made of animal skin. The spine was also backed with another piece of animal skin, or in this case, an old manuscript. Many medieval manuscripts ended up this way, cut to bind the products of the printing press which was changing the way books were made. Traces of the manuscript are still visible here because the outer layer of binding has worn away over the centuries. The text you can see here is neither printed, nor was it added after the book was made. It is a medieval manuscript, re-purposed.
The other parts of a hardback that you may be familiar with, but that have lost its original purpose, are the headbands. These are the little pieces of coloured thread at the top and bottom of the spine, which originally reinforced it during use and particularly during removal from the shelf. Modern headbands are just glued on to the spine. In the past, however, they were sewn to the binding before the outer skin was added. Here again you can see how this book is coming apart, but also that the headbands have come loose (and this one has split), and that they are clearly made up of thread that also loops down, through the vellum manuscript, where they are anchored to the structure of the book.
Although we might wish that this binding was still intact, protecting this book from 1498, its decay provides great lessons in how books were made when they were really built to last.