A Time Capsule : What An Early Printed Book Can Teach Us About “Anchoring Innovation”
Did the earliest printers know what print was? Book historian Anna Dlabacova, former fellow in the W. Kluge Center and senior university lecturer at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society, offers some observations about what a 15th-century book from the Netherlands can teach us about culture and innovation.

This is a guest post by former Kluge Fellow Anna Dlabacova, senior university lecturer at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society. This post first appeared in Insights in 2019, when Dr. Dlabacova was a fellow in the John W. Kluge Center researching the role played by Netherlandish incunabula in late medieval religious practice and visual culture. Since that date, two important developments have taken place: Dr. Dlabacova has been awarded a Starting Grant by the European Research Council for an ambitious project to conduct research on the Dutch vernacular ‘book of hours’, and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division has digitized the Rosenwald Collection, including Rosenwald 478a, the subject of this blog post. As a result, this version has more images than the original.


Image of a page of text with a large blue initial covered in red pen flourishes.
Detail of the opening leaf of Rosenwald 478a, an early printed text with distinctive hand-drawn pen flourishes resembling manuscripts from the period. https://lccn.loc.gov/65058943


Imagine you have never seen a printed book. And yet you have a printing press at your disposal. The books you would produce would be dictated by what you know, just as the first mobile phones resembled conventional landline phones and the first cars were suspiciously reminiscent of carriages.

The medium the first printers in the fifteenth century knew so well was the manuscript. Not surprisingly, their books reflected the design and features of books written by hand. The (technical) invention of a new medium is followed by a period in which its users start to discover its possibilities and meaning. One could argue that the invention of printing with movable metal type by Johannes Gutenberg (which led to the publication of the famous Gutenberg Bible in 1455) was followed by the actual discovery of the printed book. This happened over a number of decades, if not centuries.

Two women in a carriage pulled by a horse.
Two men driving an early car that looks like a carriage in the snow.

During the second half of the fifteenth century, printers—in coordination with readers and other actors involved in the book trade—explored the possibilities of the invention of printing in order to realize its full potential in cultural, artistic, and economic ways, while fine-tuning it technically. They explored the nature of the texts that would sell and various ways of presenting information textually as well as visually.


About the Book: A Book Containing Two Books ‘and Something Else’

A printed Netherlandish book held in the Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress effectively reveals the rootedness of the first printed books in manuscript culture. While many incunabula (books printed before 1501) no longer have their original binding, this book does. Because of this, it can be considered something of a time capsule. It tells a story about its origins, travels, and use. The beautiful fifteenth-century binding, for instance, suggests that the book was made for reading on a lectern.


Front cover of a fifteenth-century binding with a small rectangle at the top with a label.
Rosenwald 478a. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/65058943

But what about the contents of the book?

The front board boasts a title window with a handwritten (!) note in Dutch: “De spieghel des eewichs leuens met noch ander” – literally: “The Mirror of Eternal Life with also something else”.

Detail of label on the binding showing a metal rectangle and a handwritten title.
Detail of the fifteenth-century title window from the front of Rosenwald 478a. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/65058943

After a table of contents, the text starts with a blue initial letter decorated with red pen flourishes. Printed books at this time were, by modern eyes, unfinished. After the printing, process features such as paragraph marks, initials and other kinds of decoration were added by hand. Binding was another matter that buyers usually had to take care of themselves. The nature and sumptuousness of these features depended on the wishes, and of course the budget, of the buyer.

Pen work styles have been well studied for the Northern Low Countries, which enables researchers to locate the style of pen flourishes to a specific region. The pen work in the Rosenwald-book can be located to Utrecht. [1]

Image of a page of text with a large blue initial covered in red pen flourishes.
Image of the opening leaf of Rosenwald 478a with distinctive pen flourishes. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/65058943

But while the decorated initials were added in Utrecht, the first two texts in the book, the Mirror of Eternal Life (Spiegel des eeuwigen levens) and a Book on confession (Boec van der biechten), were printed in Delft by Jacob Jacobszoon van der Meer, on 30 October 1480, almost 539 years ago. Three years prior, van der Meer had been one of the printers of the famous “Delft Bible“(1477), the first book printed in Dutch.

The book starts with the Mirror of Eternal Life—a dream vision that occurred to a man whose name was Heynric. One morning, he is in deep thought, pondering questions such as “What is Man?” and “What is he made for?” While thinking, he is approached by a beautiful woman who consoles him, and introduces herself as Sacred Scripture. What follows is a dialogue between Heynric and Lady Scripture (who is a personification of Holy Writ) about the knowledge Man needs in order to reach eternal life.

The second pen work initial in the book signals the start of another text that van der Meer included in the same edition: the so-called Book on confession (image below). This text is introduced on the last leaf of the Mirror of Eternal Life, “And so that we may reach this holy city Jerusalem in the best possible way, so follows hereafter the Book of Confession, and teaches us how we should confess our sins and offences.”

Image of page of text with small blue initial and distinctive pen flourishes in red.
Detail of the second pen work initial in Rosenwald 478a marks the beginning of the only existent copy of the first edition of this booklet. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/65058943

The book, as the title window tells us, contains “also something else.” The book combines the Delft texts with a text published in Gouda by the prolific printer Gerard Leeu: the Booklet on the office or service of the Mass (Boecxken van der officie ofte dienst der missen), printed on 20 July 1479. This is the first edition of this text, and the copy at the Library of Congress is the single extant witness (only known copy) of this edition. The Booklet provides readers with basic catechetical knowledge (the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, etc.) and an allegorical explanation of the Mass as the life and Passion of Christ.


About the Readers: What Can We Learn? 

The book is thus a Sammelband (composite volume) that contains three texts in two editions produced in Delft and Gouda. All three texts provide readers with the opportunity to deepen their spiritual life by way of reading in their own mother tongue. Who were these readers? On one of the flyleaves in front of the book we find a note:

‘Desen boeck salmen ten Refter lesen Na sijn / ordenachie ende es den xiijten inde taeffele’ (This book shall be read in the refectory, according to its arrangement and it is the 13th in the catalogue).

Although the note does not mention a name or place, there are at least five extant Middle Dutch manuscripts now kept in London, Paris, Brussels, and Vienna with similar notes that mention the same catalogue. [2] Since these can be located in the Brussels community of Rooklooster (literally the red monastery), we can assume that this book was part of that same book collection kept in the refectory. The Augustinian canons would recite these books during mealtimes, supplementing their food with spiritual nurture.

Image of a page with two lines of hand-written text at the center.
Detail of the inscription from Rooklooster with reading instructions. Rosenwald 478a Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/65058943

Rooklooster also happens to be the monastery where the painter Hugo van der Goes (d. 1482) spent the last years of his life. The Portinari triptych, one of his most famous works, is now kept in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. According to the convent’s chronicle, Van der Goes suffered from melancholy or even psychosis. One of the reasons given for this condition is that he had spent a lot of time reading a Flemish book. [3] Maybe Van der Goes also held this very book in his hands, or at least heard it being read out loud?


Skeuomorphism and Anchoring Innovation: What’s new about the format of this book? 

Both the physical appearance of the book as well as the way that the book was created—by combining multiple different texts—still fits very much into medieval manuscript culture and the modes of customization of medieval manuscripts prevalent among late medieval readers. But while the book functioned within a profoundly medieval context, it was innovative.

The fact that it was a printed edition, rather than a manuscript, means that there were multiple copies produced of these texts. They were produced commercially for a market. And even though the texts fit within medieval tradition—allegorical explanations of the Mass were a common manuscript genre—these specific texts were new. They were not previously circulated in manuscript and seem to have been composed for publication in print. The new medium thus disseminated novel texts in a pre-fabricated form.

Image of blue initial with red penwork.
Image of a page of text with a large blue initial covered in red pen flourishes.

The co-existence of profound innovation and tradition in the work of early printers such as Leeu can be explained through the concept of “anchoring innovation,” recently introduced by Ineke Sluiter, Dutch classicist and professor of Greek Language and Literature at Leiden University. [4] Whereas we tend to think of the concepts of “traditional” and “innovative” as mutually exclusive, Sluiter argues that being in the grip of the past is an important feature of innovative societies. According to Sluiter:

[I]nnovations may become acceptable, understandable, and desirable when relevant societal groups can effectively integrate and accommodate them in their conceptual categories, values, beliefs and ambitions. This is the case when […] innovations are “anchored.”

Gerard Leeu and his contemporaries anchored their use of print for Middle Dutch religious texts by integrating them within existing manuscript culture. The design of these early printed books could be compared to current skeuomorphic design, in which digital items are made to resemble their real-world counterparts and thus retain non-functional elements of these older designs. A case in point is the desktop design on PC’s, complete with manila folders and a calendar that retains the ornamental elements of book binding.

Image of a computer and keyboard next to a stack of books.
Chick Harrity. [Computer monitor and keyboard next to a stack of books and lamp]. [3 August 1982]. Photograph. Prints and Photographs Division.

Printing books that resemble manuscripts might show that printers did not yet know what print was—or what it could become. But it can also be seen as an important anchoring strategy: it anchored the printed book in the world of books familiar to readers. This made the printed religious book recognizable, accepted, and successful, so that it in turn could become an anchoring device for new religious innovations. Recently, British historian Andrew Pettegree has described Martin Luther’s successful employment of print during the Reformation in his book Brand Luther. Early printers such as Leeu and van der Meer seem to have paved the way for developments in the sixteenth century by accustoming readers to the use of printed books for religious instruction and knowledge.

Image of mural at the Library of Congress showing Martin Luther and another printing looking at a proof while another printer pulls on the printing press.
Carol M. Mighsmith. [East Corridor, Great Hall. Printing Press mural in Evolution of the Book series, John W. Alexander. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.]. Photograph of mural. 2007. Prints and Photographs Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/2007684315

Moreover, these fifteenth-century books provide us 21st-century humans with a mirror to look at our own interactions with new media. With regard to design, the new medium of the press became only slowly, truly independent from handwritten books. The current, new media revolution shows a similar dependence on traditional, industrial design. An example can be found in e-readers, where a digital screen is made to look like a printed book, which, when you think of it, is not that different from an early printed book that essentially still looks like a manuscript.



[1] I am grateful to Anne Korteweg for her help in locating the penwork.

[2] See Erik Kwakkel, Die Dietsche boeke die ons toebehoeren. De kartuizers van Herne en de productie van Middelnederlandse handschriften in de regio Brussel (1350-1400). Leuven: Peeters, 2002, pp. 29-30, esp. n. 77.

[3] Bernhard Ridderbos, De melancholie van de kunstenaar. Hugo van der Goes en de oudnederlandse schilderkunst. Den Haag: Sdu uitgeverij Koninginnegracht, 1991, p. 220.

[4] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/european-review/article/anchoring-innovation-a-classical-research-agenda/EB4A06F32AA42EAE8F732DF658687A42/share/3daaf9643f19de76ec1ed39ffb1f2ab88c542a50



Click here to subscribe to Bibliomania and never miss a post!