The Private Life of Print: the use and abuse of books 1450 – 1550

An ink blot on a 1470 edition of the Historiae Romanae DecadesA  new exhibition at the Cambridge University Library running from 24th October 2014 until 11th April 2015 celebrates the use and abuse of the first western printed books by their owners. More information in this film

On a winter’s day in 1482 a scholar had an embarrassing disaster, see left, leaving a blood-red blot of ink on the pristine page of a valuable book.

He then compounded his crime by confessing, adding a note in the same red ink still legible after 532 years. On the desecrated page of the Historiae Romanae Decades, printed in Venice in 1470, he wrote: “Ita macula” – this stain – “I stupidly made on the first of December 1482.”

The owner of another fabulous volume, the Book of St Albans – a gentleman’s guide to heraldry, hawking and hunting that, in the 1480s, was the first colour printed book in English – did worse adding a little rude drawing to the bottom of a page.

Many of the printed books going on display have hand-painted pictures, or gold leaf decoration, added to make them more beautiful. However, others have been inscribed, scribbled or doodled on by generations of owners, some more illustrious than others.

Carol Ann Duffy has written a poem to celebrate the exhibition