Many of the first printed books in Europe were decorated with illustrations, initials and borders. Each served a purpose: initials signaled, via their range of sizes, a textual hierarchy, working in much the same way as chapter headings and sub-headings do today. Decorative borders were employed to demarcate or divide books, chapters or sections and, from the last decades of the fifteenth century, were used at the beginning of books as openers or title-pages.
Wood was by far the most common material for these decorative elements and had been in use long before the invention of movable type in the late 1440s. Most of the decorated borders in early typographic books are printed from woodcuts. Carving a design in wood was relatively inexpensive and could be produced pretty quickly. The woodblock would then be printed alongside the metal type (unlike etchings or other intaglio* methods that required a different kind of printing press) and could survive thousands or even tens of thousands of impressions before requiring repair or replacement.
*Metalcuts are printed in relief and are not to be confused with intaglio (pronounced in-TAL-ee-oh) methods like etching that also use metal plates. In relief printing, it is the raised surface that prints; in intaglio, the ink within the grooves is printed.
Although woodcut borders are not uncommon in incunabula (fifteenth-century printed books), metalcut borders are. Here is a rare and beautiful metalcut border appearing first in a Church manual for the diocese of Zaragoza in Northern Spain. The border was made by Alfonso Fernández de Córdoba, printing in Híjar about 80km from Zaragoza. This delicate and busy moresque border populated with dogs, birds, a stag, entwined dragons, a unicorn, a lion, a bull, and some other creatures I’m unable to identify – all set against a background of tendrils, curlicues and white dots.