On 15th-Century Books; or, How I Learned to Pronounce “Incunabula”

The term “incunabula” [in-kyoo-nab-yuh-luh] signifies the first generation of books produced in western Europe using movable type. Johannes Gutenberg’s bible, the signal achievement which heralded the advent of movable type among Europeans, rolled off his printing press in 1455. Later scholars settled on the entirely arbitrary date of January 1, 1501, as the cutoff point for incunabula: those produced after Gutenberg and before 1/1/1501 were outfitted with the fancy incunabula designation, and those produced on or after after that date were, for the most part, simply considered plain ol’ books.

Thus, incunabula hold a special place in the hearts of many collectors of fine and rare books. Carl Weeks, who certainly numbered among the finest collectors of his day, acquired several examples of incunabula for his Library collection.

Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start, as Maria Von Trapp once said. Here, in all its fifteenth-century glory, is our Gutenberg bible leaf. Carl Weeks acquired this piece from New York book dealer Gabriel Wells in the 1920s.

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Leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, c. 1455. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

Gutenberg worked primarily in Mainz, a city in modern-day Germany. Soon thereafter a robust trade in printing emerged in Venice, where deep Italian pockets bankrolled book production for generations. Two Bavarian brothers, John and Wendelin de Spire, established one of the first presses in Venice in 1469. The incunabula leaf below was printed by Wendelin in 1472 and is from an edition of Cicero’s On Duty.

 

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Leaf from Cicero’s On Duty by the de Spira Press, 1472. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

Back at Strassburg in 1472, Johann Mentelin was hard at work on a mammoth production of Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla super totam Bibliam, which was the first major work of commentary on the bible. Some accounts suggest that Mentelin learned his craft from Gutenberg himself. At any rate, the book produced by Mentelin is a show-stopper. It includes decorated capitals, rubrication, innovative design and, delightfully, annotations from some long-ago reader.

 

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Nicolas of Lyra’s Postilla super totam Bibliam by the Mentelin Press, 1472. Salisbury House Permanent Collection 

 

Venice in 1475 was a wonderful confluence of geography and talent: in addition to the de Spire brothers, Nicolas Jensen, roundly considered one of history’s greatest printers and typographers, turned out beautiful volumes from his Venetian workshop. The leaf below from Jensen’s edition of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers remains representative of his incomparable design and execution.

 

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Leaf from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers by the Jensen Press, 1475. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

The works of Thomas Aquinas, the prolific Roman Catholic priest, philosopher, and theologian, proved a popular subject for many early printers. Anton Koberger, who established the first printing press in Nuremberg in 1470, produced in 1475 a gorgeous edition of Aquinas’ Catena aurea in quatuor Evangelia (basically, a commentary on the four Gospels). The opening page of the book is a stunner:

 

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Thomas Aquinas’ Catena aurea in quatuor Evangelia by the Koberger Press, 1475.Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

One of the most frequently-reproduced books of the Middle Ages, The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, chronicled the exploits of several Roman Catholic saints. In 1480, the Italian printer Antonio de Strata published a version of Voragine’s work in Venice.

 

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Leaf from Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend by the de Strata Press, 1480. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

The second-oldest book in the Salisbury House collection, and our oldest complete bible, had its origins in Venice as well. Johannes Herbort de Seligenstadt was a German printer who worked first in Padua in 1475 and moved to Venice six years later. He ultimately issued three editions of the bible; the version at Salisbury House dates to 1483.

 

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Bible by the Seligenstadt Press, 1483. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

If commentaries on the obscurities of 13th-century canon law really blow your hair back, then this next incunabulum is for you. It’s an edition of Bernardus Parmensis’ exegesis of the Decretals of (Pope) Gregory IX printed in 1487.

 

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Bernardus Parmensis’ Commentaries on the Decretals of Gregory IX, 1487. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

Typically, the authors of most books printed during the incunabula period were already dead. Werner Rolewinck was one of the few exceptions. His Fasciculus temporum combined secular history with biblical history and commentary. This edition was published in Strassburg in 1490, likely by Johann Pruss.

 

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Werner Rolewinck’s Fasciculus temporum by the Pruss Press, 1490. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, completed in 1320, remains a classic in world literature. This incunabula leaf is part of the complete Divina Commedia printed in Venice by Petrus de Piasio in 1491.

 

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Leaf from Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia by the Piasio Press, 1491. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

Anton Koberger, the prolific printer of Nuremberg, offered for sale in 1493 one of the most richly illustrated works of the incunabula period. His edition of Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle continues to be roundly considered one of the finest works of this era.

 

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Leaf from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle by the Koberger Press, 1493. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

The last of Carl Weeks’ incunabula collection dates to 1496. The Epistolae Sancti Hieronymi, or the letters of St. Jerome, rolled off the Venetian press of Johannes Rubeus Vercellensis in 1496. Interestingly, the book was printed to include rubrication and illustrated capitals; however, our edition only includes the blank spaces where these additional decorative elements would have been added.

 

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Epistolae Sancti Hieronymi by the Vercellensis Press, 1496. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

The Bibles of Salisbury House

There are a lot of myths and apocryphal tales about Salisbury House that have taken root in the popular perception of Carl and Edith Weeks’ amazing home. Some of the ones that we hear most often include:

  • “The house was moved intact, brick by brick, piece by piece, from England.” The real story: The house is modeled after King’s House in Salisbury, England, and some architectural elements were acquired in England, while others came from more mundane locations, including cobblestones ripped up from High Street in Des Moines.
  • “Carl Weeks’ father died when he was a young boy.” The real story: Carl’s father and mother separated, and Carl’s father lived for many years afterward, into Carl’s own adulthood, in northwestern Iowa; this myth was repeated often enough that the story of Carl’s father’s premature passing actually made it onto our visitor center signs before recent research proved it wrong!
  • “Carl Weeks collected or tried to collect every Bible ever printed.” The real story: Carl only collected a tiny fraction of the probably immeasurable number of Bibles that have been printed since the first Gutenberg edition in 1454, but among the ones that he did collect are some of the most important and beautiful Bibles ever produced.

Spine from our oldest complete Bible, published in Venice.

One of our conceptual planning ideas for 2013 or 2014 is to curate an exhibition of some of the more incredible pieces from the Salisbury House Bible Collection, most of which spend most of their time locked away in climate controlled, high security rooms. We’re going to be doing some fundraising for this project and perhaps reach out to some area churches as presenting or collaborating sponsors over the next year, since we’ll have some significant costs associated with safely sharing these works with the public, while also conducting the in-depth research required to interpret and present them in the ways that they deserve to be seen.

But until we get there, we’ve been doing a little bit of preliminary research just to get our hands around the holdings, and there are some exciting things that we can share with you now, just to give you a sense of what we’re finding.

In addition to our many Bibles printed with movable type, we also have some earlier hand-lettered and illuminated incunabula from the 13th to 15th Centuries. Our oldest Biblical documents were produced in 1200 and 1225 in England; they are single, hand-illuminated leaves, one from a Psalter, one from a Bible. We also have three illuminated Books of Hours dating from the 14th and 15th Centuries.

Dutch Bible, 1553.

The 42-line Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 1450s, is obviously a landmark work of art and culture, a true game-changer for the ages. There are only 48 substantially complete copies left in the world today, and none have changed hands since the 1970s. In 1921, though, a New York book dealer dismantled a damaged copy and sold individual leafs to collectors; these are now known as “Noble Fragments,” and we have one of them here at Salisbury House. We also have two leaves from the 1460 Gutenberg Catholicon (another seminal early printed work, this one a Latin encyclopedia cum dictionary) and a leaf from the original 1611 King James Bible, among many other fragmentary pieces.

Our oldest complete Bible was printed in Venice in 1483 by Franciscus Renner of Heilbrun. It was clearly a working or study Bible, and many of its pages contain hand-written marginalia exhibiting the distinctive sepia tone of aged iron gall ink. We also have the New Testament from a Douay-Rheims Bible (1582, the first translation of the Bible from Latin Vulgate to English), a complete Dutch Bible from 1553, a 1607 English Bible bound with The Book of Common Prayer and Sternhold and Hopkin’s Psalms of David, a Greek Apocrypha from 1612, and many dozen other Bibles printed around the world up through the middle of the 20th Century.

Bruce Rogers’ massive Oxford Lectern Bible (1935), next to a reproduction of a Gutenberg set, for scale.

In addition to his interests in the Bible itself, Carl Weeks was also fascinated by and hugely supportive of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century, wherein the art of book-making was celebrated in ways that matched the magnificence of a text’s words with illustrations, paper and binding of equal brilliance. The Salisbury House Library features two epic books inspired by this cultural movement: Bruce Rogers’ 1935 Oxford Lectern Bible (we have one of the 200 large format editions)  and the 1903-1905 Doves Bible. Every facet of these books is beautiful, and they are truly great works of art in their own rights.

Five volume Doves Bible, 1903-1905.

Some of our Bibles aren’t important because of the quality of their construction or when or where they were printed, but rather because of who owned them. We have Lewis Carroll’s Greek New Testament, for example, along with Bibles either inscribed or owned by John Trumbull, James Boswell, William Henry Harrison, and others. Carl’s favored book-dealer was a gentleman named Harry Marks, from New York City, and we often find notes from Harry in our books themselves or letters in our archives providing background or provenance for Carl’s benefit.

C.L. Dodgson signed his Greek New Testament; most know him as Lewis Carroll of “Alice in Wonderland” fame.

While we work to develop a full exhibition of our Bibles over the next couple of years, we are going to be taking one step in the short-term to allow some of these fragile or priceless pieces to be seen, without subjecting them to the rigors of daily exhibitions and tours. In January, we will be launching what we’re nominally calling “The Treasures Tour.” It will be an evening tour, held once per month, to a limited number of people (probably 20), with preregistration required. We are developing a list of items that will be shown each month of this tour (likely including the Gutenberg leaf, along with some of the other Bibles mentioned above), and will also feature a few wild card items each month, perhaps inspired by the season, or happenings in the world around us, or simply by finding something remarkable in our research.

Harry Marks’ notes, Lewis Carroll’s Greek New Testament.

In the early 1990s, when the founders of the Salisbury House Foundation were assessing the true merit in preserving Salisbury House as a historic house museum, they engaged the National Trust for Historic Preservation to conduct an assessment of the house and its holdings. Their conclusion: “Salisbury House is a nationally significant architectural resource; its decorative arts and book collections are unique to the Midwest.”

I know I speak for everyone on the staff here, as well as our volunteers and board members, when I say that we are all actively committed to working in the years ahead to continually return to and be invigorated by the fundamental principle upon which our organization is built: that Salisbury House is truly, truly special, and its collections are worthy of international recognition.