Dating the Rylands Apocalypse wood-block

Among the many hurdles facing researchers interested in xylographic prints in the fifteenth century is the vexed question of dating. Few single-leaf or blockbook ‘editions’ bear a date-our assumption is that they were effectively print-on-demand-and even where a date is included, as often as not it refers to something other than the date of production. Thanks to the work of Charles Moïse Briquet, Gerhard Piccard and other filigranologists, we have a reliable dataset of watermarks that can be used to localise and date the paper stocks used for xylographic printing. In the rare instances where the original wood-blocks survive, however, there are very few tools available to distinguish a genuine fifteenth-century block from a later copy. 

Around 1800 one such wood-block was given by the archivist and antiquarian Thomas Astle (1735–1803) to the doyen of nineteenth-century book collectors, George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758–1834). The block depicts two scenes from the blockbook Apocalypse cycle and it was long regarded as the only surviving wood-block from a blockbook edition. The veracity of the block has, however, long been questioned.

Based on research supported by grants from the John Rylands Research Institute and the Printing Historical Society, the strange story of the Rylands woodblock can finally be unearthed. The results will be published in The Journal of the Printing Historical Society in Winter 2022.