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Renaissance Bindings: Markings that Map the Past

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ince 1448, Cambridge’s oldest purpose-built library has housed a working collection of books, some bought and some donated. When other libraries rebound their early printed books, Queens’ College opted to retain what is now one of its most distinctive assets: its sixteenth-century bindings.

Like annotations, marks of provenance on these unique objects map relationships between the books’ past owners, and the spread of ideas during the early modern period. The horn window on the book once owned by Thomas Yale – the Bursar of Queens’ who argued for a return to the Catholic Church in the University - documents its donation to the College, while the gold lettering records its prior owner, Simon Heynes, the President of Queens’ who was appointed by Henry VIII to preach in Cambridge against papal supremacy. Connected by a wife as well as a library – Yale married Heynes’ widow - the two men argued their polarised views within a few decades of each other in the same college. In this and other examples, the Library’s bindings reveal connections between Queens’ members, and the College’s engagement with the events of the Tudor period.

In addition to provenance marks, images on bindings reflect the manner in which the books were used. It is no accident that St Catherine, patron saint of theologians and students, appears on a seminal textbook on theology; the binding reflects the function of the book. More than simply an indication of the content of the book, though, this beautiful design, thought to have been identified on only three other books elsewhere, suggests that the book was also a sacred item, with devotional as well as intellectual value to its former owner. The print revolution did not erase the individuality of such books; their bindings speak volumes about their perceived purpose and value.

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