Dirty doodles and copulating couples: Cambridge University's use and abuse of books 1450-1550

By Ben Miller | 23 October 2014

15th century wit's depiction of a randy couple and prayer book owned by Katherine Parr to go on public show

A photo of an ancient book
Wonders of the World, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)© Cambridge University Library
A passionate pencil portrait of a saucy couple, lewdly embracing at the foot of an otherwise untarnished page in one of the most famous and collectable books in English printing history, is one of the unexpected highlights of a new exhibition at Cambridge University showing how ancient books were used and abused.

A close-up of the offending sketch© Cambridge University Library
The owner of The Book of St Albans, one of the university's star tomes which emerged during the mid-1480s, made the amorous addition without knowing the future value of the gentleman’s guide to heraldry, hawking and hunting.

The sordid sketch is part of an exhibition on books from the mid-15th to mid-16th centuries, described as “spectacular” and “lavish” by curators. Many of the prints were mistreated and vandalised at a time when books were also being cherished and embellished during the first century of the printed age.

“We tend to assume that books of this age and importance have always been treasured items treated with the utmost respect and care,” explains Ed Potten, who has assembled a display which will also allow the public to see the Gutenberg Bible – Europe’s first printed book using moveable type, which is now worth millions.

“There is a temptation to view these marginalia and doodles as diminishing and devaluing the books, but it’s precisely these features that make them a joy to study.

“They offer rare and fascinating insights into the private lives of books – glimpses of the many ways in which books were received and subsequently used by the first generations of printed book owners.”

Other exquisite exhibits include the Nuremberg Chronicle - the most heavily illustrated book of the 15th century - and a Book of Hours annotated by Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII.

  • Private Lives of Print: The use and abuse of books 1450-1550 is at Cambridge University Library, Cambridge from October 24 2014 - April 11 2015.

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A photo of an ancient book
The Book of St Albans© Cambridge University Library
A photo of an ancient book
"I stupidly made this blot", reads the annotation in this book© Cambridge University Library
A photo of an ancient book
The prayer book was written in and once owned by Katherine Parr© Cambridge University Library
A photo of an ancient book
Pliny's Letters© Cambridge University Library
A photo of an ancient book
The Three Living and the three dead, from the Book of Hours© Cambridge University Library
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