With Your Indulgence

ONE OF THE nation's most tasteful -- and least known -- publishers is, oddly enough, the Library of Congress. The Library's publishing arm produces beautifully printed books on a variety of subjects, often relating to materials in its own great collections. A good example is a fascinating new volume called The Printer and the Pardoner, by Paul Needham, which is both an intellectual detective story and an introduction to the world of 15th-century English printing.

The story begins as Needham, curator of printed books and bindings at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, is laboring away in the rare book room of the Library of Congress on a quaint but not forgotten volume of ancient lore containing four manuscripts of the first English-language printer, William Caxton. Needham was looking at the paper used in the manuscripts in order to help date them, but noticed something else. It was the volume's quire guards, strips of vellum used to reinforce the manuscript at the point where the folded pages are stitched. Needham saw printing on the underside of the quire guards.

Further examination revealed printing on the underside of 12 quire guards in the volume, and that the strips were the cut-up remains of a single piece of printing, using a typeface employed by Caxton from 1480-84. It turned out to be the only known copy of an indulgence issued by the hospital of Our Lady of Rounceval, which was located in Charing Cross, London. When the Library of Congress was apprised of the find, it agreed to have the volume unbound for a thorough examination, which led to the publication of The Printer and the Pardoner.

In telling the story of his find, Needham explores many byways of 15th-century history, including the life of Caxton, the methods of printing and binding books, the use of indulgences by charitable institutions for fund-raising, the role of the pardoner (or indulgence salesman) and the notorious reputation of St. Mary of Rounceval as a flogger of indulgences. The amazing thing about Caxton is that he never printed a thing until he was 50 years old. After spending his early career as a leader of the British trading community in Bruges, Caxton apparently lost his political influence and had to move in 1470 to Cologne, then a center for the new German invention, printing. He learned the craft and returned to Bruges in 1473, where he set up the city's first print shop. There he produced the first book ever printed in English -- a killer question for trivia buffs -- Recuyell Collection of the Histories of Troy, Caxton's own translation of a work by Raoul Le Fevre. In 1476, Caxton moved to London after years abroad and set up the first print shop on English soil.

Not long after, Caxton began to print up indulgences, remissions of the punishment due for sins, which were sold for a variety of causes, including campaigns against the Turks and the support of charities. A space was left on the printed indulgence for the donor's name. This was big business for printers, but very few examples have survived because the indulgence (unlike a property deed, for example) was null after the death of its recipient, possibly even before. Needham cites the 200,000 indulgences printed by the Benedictine monastery of Monserrat above Barcelona from 1498 to 1500, of which only six survive, and the 130,000 ordered by the Bishop of Cefalu in Sicily in 1500, none of which are known to exist today. "It is, in a sense, historically just that an indulgence issued by Our Lady of Rounceval should finally have come to light," says Needham, because it was a name closely linked to the sale of indulgences and their abuse. On Chaucer's pilgrimage to Canterbury, there is "a gentil Pardoner of Rouncival" who claims to possess "a joly wenche in every toun." Other writings of the time used Rounceval almost as a synonym for indulgence-peddling.

Needham tells his story in 50 large-sized pages, but another 50 are given to notes and appendices. John Y. Cole of the Library's Center for the Book provides an introduction, and there are 19 black-and-white illustrations. The book was printed by one of the premier craft-printing houses in the country, Meridien-Stinehour of Lunenburg, Vermont. It costs $27.50 and is available through the Library of Congress. Add $2 for mail orders.

The Printer and the Pardoner is only one book from an interesting list put out by the Library under its director of publishing, Dana J. Pratt. Pratt, who was formerly with Yale University Press, has been with the library since 1978. Among its most important historical source books is the series called Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, edited by Paul H. Smith and a squad of other scholars. Volume 12 (of a projected 25) has just been published, covering the events of the winter and spring of 1779, when the Continental Congress launched an investigation of American commissioners managing American affairs abroad.

Let me mention just one more of the Library's books. It is Early Motion Pictures: The Paper Print Collection in the Library of Congress. The volume covers a source for motion-picture history that is little-known to the general public. In the early days of motion pictures, copyright law did not extend to the new medium. So film makers made paper contact prints directly from the negative and sent these to the Copyright Office. This book is a catalogue of 3,000 films on paper covering the years 1897 to 1915. Long after many of the original films -- made on chemically unstable nitrate stock -- had deteriorated, they were recreated from these paper records. The author of the book is film technician Kemp R. Niver, who is also the person responsible for inventing the restoration technique.

On the Road

SONG OF THE OPEN ROAD: A Celebration of the American Highway (Simon & Schuster) is a nicely written history of our road system. It is by Phil Patton, a well-known magazine writer and author of a previous volume called Razzle Dazzle: The Curious Marriage of Television and Football. Open Road is filled with marvelous anecdotes, but one struck me particularly.

Early in the century, Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Co., tried to motor across the country. Traveling west, he found that all highways ended somewhere in Nebraska. A man in Omaha gave him instructions. Drive west until you reach a fence. Open the fence, drive through and close it. Do this several times. Joy followed the instructions, he recalled later, until finally the fences ended and there was "nothing but two ruts across the prairie." I've never heard a more vivid description of the difference that automobiles and roads have made in our lives.

By the way, another choice bit of trivia, once again from Patton's book: The first transcontinental auto trip was made in 1903 by Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, a Vermont physician, and his mechanic, Sewell K. Crocker, in a two-cylinder Winton. Presumably, they followed the same ruts discovered soon after by Henry Joy.

Poets at Work

WHO SAYS POETS have to be poor? Three judges -- J.D. McClatchy, Richard Howard and Rachel Hadas -- are hard at work right now reading books of poetry published during 1985 to determine the winner of the 1986 Leonore Marshall prize for poetry. The competetion, named after the late poet and novelist, is co-sponsored by The Nation magazine and The New Hope Foundation. Past winners include Stanley Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Allen Tate and John Ashbery. The prize is $7,500 and the winner will be announced in October. Keep glued to this spot to find out who pockets the loot.

In the Margin

ON JULY 31, Random House will publish a posthumous novel by the actress Simone Signoret called Adieu Volodya. The book -- set in Paris between the two world wars -- went to No.1 on the fiction best seller list in France after its publication there. And it has already been bought for an American TV mini-series by the producer Steve Krantz. He is the husband of Judith Krantz, who knows something about best sellerdom herself. . . . Pocket Books, the Simon & Schuster subsidiary, will publish the "official" book commemorating Hands Across America, the big fund raising event held last month. It will be an 8-by-10 paperback with about a hundred black-and-white photos. The title? Hands Across America. How'd you guess? . . . William Morrow is lauching a new paperback reprint line in the fall. To be called Mulberry Books, it will reprint best-selling backlist titles from the Morrow's three children's divisions -- Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, Greenwillow Books and Morrow's Junior Books.