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31 October 2017

500 Years of Reformation

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On 31 October 1517 the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg containing 95 theses for academic debate. The topic was the sale of indulgences – certificates granting believers time free from purgatory – in order to fund the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther was angry that the money of ordinary Christians was being taken to help a wealthy church establishment pay for a lavish building project, and he condemned the idea that divine forgiveness could be bought and sold rather than coming from the believer’s true spiritual repentance.

Luther portrait
Lucas Cranach the elder, Portrait of Martin Luther as a monk. Detail from the frontispiece of Luther's pamphlet De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiæ (Strassburg, 1520) 697.h.21, 

This has come to be seen as the start of the Protestant Reformation that fractured the religious unity of Western Europe and changed the way many Christians viewed and practised their faith. Although many historians today doubt that Luther actually did nail his theses to the church door on this or any other date, let alone in the dramatic public gesture often depicted in later images, 31 October has been celebrated for centuries as the birthday of the Reformation and in this fifth centenary year commemorations have been held all over the world.

Luther theses
An idealised 19th-century image by Gustav König of Luther posting the 95 theses, from  Dr Martin Luther der deutsche Reformator (Hamburg, 1847-51) 4885.f.13. 

The British Library is playing its modest part with a display in our Treasures Gallery looking at Luther and his impact, which opened by happy coincidence on 31 October and runs until 4 February 2018. Exhibits include an original printing of the 95 theses (C.18.d.12.) and a copy of the indulgence that triggered Luther to write them (C.18.b.18.).

95 Theses Latin
The 95 Theses, ‘Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum’. Copy printed in Nuremberg in 1517. C.18.d.12.

The huge debate and controversy stirred by the Reformation is illustrated by some of the polemical pamphlets of the time both for and against Luther. One of the most famous is Passional Christi und Antichristi, with woodcuts by Lucas Cranach the elder. The book compares the life of Christ and the perceived corruption of the Papacy, showing for example Christ’s explulsion of moneylenders from the temple contrasted with the Pope raking in money from the sale of indulgences. But Luther’s opponents could attack him with equal force. In keeping with the scatalogical humour of the age, Thomas Murner’s attack on Luther, Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren (Strassburg, 1522; 11517.c.33) includes a caricature of Luther being pushed into a privy.

Christ und Antichrist
Christ and the moneylenders compared with the Pope and indulgence-sellers. Woodcuts by Cranach the elder from Passional Christi und Antichristi ([Wittenberg, 1521])  C.53.c.3.

In Germany, Luther is as celebrated for his contribution to the language through his Bible translation as for his influence on religious life. We show copies of his first translations of the New Testament and of the whole Bible, the latter in a copy with beautifully hand-coloured woodcuts.

1534 Bible tp and coat of arms
Hand-coloured title-page from the first complete edition of Luther’s Bible translation (Wittenberg, 1534) 1.b.9.

When his translations came under attack, Luther defended them in an open letter, the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, where he famously stated the need to listen to the everyday speech of ordinary people – ‘the man in the marketplace, the mother in the house, the children in the street’ – to create a vernacular Bible that would truly speak to them. His translation influenced William Tyndale who wanted to create an English Bible that ‘the boy that driveth the plough’ could read and understand. However, the copy of Tyndale’s New Testament which we are displaying to represent that influence belonged to someone much at the other end of the social scale: Queen Anne Boleyn.

Tyndale titlepage
Illuminated title-page from Anne Boleyn’s copy of  The newe Testament, dylygently corrected and compared with the Greke by Willyam Tindale... (Antwerp, 1534) C.23.a.21.

This Bible is not the only English connection on display. We also show a copy of Henry VIII’s 1521 attack on Luther, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Rome, 1521; G.1210). This earned him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ from Pope Leo X – a title he kept for himself as head of the English Church when he broke away from Rome over a decade later. We also show a later and happier example of Luther in England: a history of St George’s German Lutheran Church in the East End of London, established for the many German immigrants who came to London in the 18th and 19th centuries. The copy on display belonged to the Church’s own library which the British Library acquired in 1997.

Title-page of Johann Gottlieb Burckhardt, Kirchen-Geschichte der deutschen Gemeinden in London (Tübingen, 1798) RB.23.a.16354. This copy, from the church’s library was  originally presented to the Pastor of St George’s Lutheran church in Whitechapel by the church organist.

The language of Luther’s Bible and the spread of Lutheran churches around the world are only a part of his legacy. Luther’s belief in the importance of music in Christian worship helped to create traditions of congregational hymn-singing and of church music which have influenced church music of many denominations and enriched the canon of Western classical music, in particular through the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Luther’s most famous hymn ‘Ein Feste Burg’ is shown in an early edition along with the manuscript of one of Bach’s cantatas written for the Lutheran church of St Thomas in Leipzig.

Zweig MS 1 f3r
Manuscript page from Bach’s Cantata for the 19th Sunday after Trinity, ‘Wo soll ich fliehen hin?’ (1724). Zweig MS 1

To mark ‘Reformation 500’ many souvenirs of all kinds have been marketed, and we show two examples, including the Luther figure created by the toy company Playmobil, which became its best-selling figure ever. But Luther memorabilia is nothing new: in the decades immediately after his death in 1546 Luther’s image began to appear on coins, medals, ceramics and bookbindings. Our contemporary souvenirs, like this year’s Luther commemorations, are part of a long tradition.

Luther Davis 628
16th-century decorative bookbinding with a portrait of Luther, on a copy of Ius civile manuscriptorum librorum (Antwerp, 1567) Davis 628

The British Library will also be holding a Study Day on Monday 27 November looking at the 16th-Century Reformation outside Germany. Details and booking information can be found here. On the same day the British Museum and Library Singers will be performing a free lunchtime concert of music from and inspired by the Reformation in the Library’s entrance hall.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

Luther Zweig MS 200 detail
Luther’s signature from Zweig MS 200, a collection of handwritten dedications by Luther and other reformers.

02 October 2017

Luther the translator

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In 1521, having been excommunicated by the Pope and declared an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor, Martin Luther was given refuge at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach by Elector Friedrich III of Saxony, one of the first German princes to support the ideas of the Protestant Reformation. While in hiding there Luther set about translating the New Testament into German, as first part of a proposed translation of the whole Bible.

Luther Junker Jörg
Luther disguised as ‘Junker Jörg’ while in hiding at the Wartburg. Engraving by Lucas Cranach, reproduced in Alfred von Sallet, Luther als Junker Georg ... Separatabdruch aus dem 52 Bande des “Neuen Lausitzischen Magazins.” (Berlin, 1883)

Luther chose to tackle the New Testament first as it was the less difficult task. He was not the first to translate the Bible into German: 18 translations had appeared in print between 1466 and the early 1520s. But unlike these, which were based heavily on the Latin ‘Vulgate’, the canonical Bible text for the Catholic Church of the day, Luther went back to the original Biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. For the New Testament he worked mainly from Erasmus’s Greek edition.

Bible IC.506
The first Bible printed in German (Strasbourg, 1466) IC.506

The work was finished in 11 months and the first edition of Luther’s New Testament appeared in September 1522. It was a great success: the first edition of 3,000 copies sold out within 3 months, and a new edition appeared in December, by which time Luther had already made many changes and corrections to his translation (he would continue to revise and amend his translations throughout his life).

Luther Septembertestament C36g7
Title-page of the ‘September Testament’, the first edition of Luther’s New Testament translation (Wittenberg, 1522)  C.36.g.7.

The first part of Luther’s Old Testament translation appeared in 1523. Over the next 12 years, working with a group of associates, he completed the translation of the whole Bible, which was published in 1534. In that time at least 22 new editions of the already-published translations had appeared, and it is reckoned that around a third of all literate Germans would have owned a copy of one or more parts.

Luther Bible 1534 tp
Title-page of the first complete edition of Luther’s Bible (Wittenberg, 1534) 1.b.9.

An important aspect of Luther’s translation was that he wanted it to reflect the cadences not of Latin, or of Greek and Hebrew, but of contemporary spoken German. He set out  this idea in the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, published in 1530 in response to critics such as Hieronymus Emser, who in 1523 had produced a book arguing that Luther’s Bible should be ‘forbidden to the common man’ and identifying 1400 alleged errors and heresies in Luther’s text.

Luther Sendbrieff
Martin Luther, Ein Sendbrieff. Von Dolmetschen... (Wittenberg, 1530)

A particular target of Luther’s critics was his use of the term ‘allein durch Glauben’ – ‘only by faith’ – to translate Romans 3.28 in which neither the Vulgate nor the Greek text has any equivalent of the word ‘only’. Although the concept of justification by faith alone was in fact of great theological importance for Luther, here he defended his use of ‘allein’ on purely linguisitic grounds, claiming that it was so natural in the context of a spoken German sentence that not to use it would sound foolish. He famously stated that:

We do not have to ask the literal Latin how we are to speak German, as these donkeys do. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognise that we are speaking German to them.

Luther also points out in the Sendbrief that Emser himself made heavy use of Luther’s German New Testament when commissioned by the Catholic Duke Georg of Saxony to provide a heresy-free Catholic alternative to Luther’s translation. Emser’s reliance on Luther’s text meant that Luther’s Biblical language became familiar and popular among Catholic as well as Protestant Germans.

As the Sendbrief suggested, Luther had found a way to make the Bible speak to ordinary Germans. His translation would greatly influence the German language – as the King James Bible later would English – so that today’s German speakers of all confessions and religions, and those of none, owe a debt going back to the fugitive monk who devoted his days in hiding to translation.

 Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

27 September 2017

A Salamanca scholar defies the Inquisition

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Fray Luis de León (1527-91) was one of Spain’s most prestigious scholars and one of its greatest poets. Unfortunately for him his area of expertise was Hebrew. This in itself was enough to make him suspicious to the Inquisition. And he was of Jewish extraction, which made him even more open to attack. As you’ll recall, the principal targets of the Spanish Inquisition were Protestants and Jews. A knowledge of Hebrew was the sign of the potential fellow-traveller.

Catholicism defended the Latin of the Vulgate against all comers: never mind that the Old Testament was translated from the Hebrew, the Vulgate was superior.

In the 17th century Cornelius à Lapide pondered that in the account of the Flood Noah’s dove had in its beak not an olive branch (Vulgate) but an olive leaf (in Hebrew):

Pro illo: Portans ramum olivae virentibus folii[s]: Graeci libri habent κάρφος, id est, festucam. S. Ambrosius legit, ramum, Augustinus, surculum. Hebraice est: Ecce folium oliuae raptum erat in ore eius. Vox (haleh) proprie significat folium, quod denotat, ascendere: vnde haleh, dicitur foliũ, quia vento ascendit in altum, & licet magis conuenire videatur imbecillitati rostri columbae, folium ex arbore decerpere quam ramũ, potuit esse ramus ille perquam paruus & tener, pauculis constans foliis.
Where [the Vulgate] says: carrying an olive branch flourishing in leaves: the Greeks have rod, S. Ambrose reads branch, Augustine twig. In Hebrew it is: Behold a plucked olive leaf was in its mouth. The word haleh literally means leaf, which by extension means to rise: hence haleh is said leaf, because it ascends on high on the wind, and although it might seem that it was more suitable to the weakness of a dove’s beak to pluck a leaf rather than a branch, this could have been a branch, albeit a small and thin one, with just a few leaves.

Miguel de la Pinta Llorente told the sad tale of the destruction of the Salamanca school of Christian Hebraists, condemned one by one to imprisonment in the name of orthodoxy.

Fray Luis spent five years at trial and in prison. On his release he wrote a poem, ‘Aquí la envidia y mentira / me tuvieron encerrado ... ’ (though some now don’t think it’s his.)

He was also an admirer, translator and imitator of the Roman poet Horace. When he came to devise a personal emblem, he chose a motto from Horace: ‘ab ipso ferro’.
The source is Odes IV, 4:

Duris ut ilex tonsa bipennibus
Nigrae feraci frondis in Algido,
Per damna, per caedes ab ipso
Ducit opes animumque ferro.

Rendered by Henry Coxwell, Gent.:

These [the early settlers in Italy] like an elm, lopt with an ax, will grow,
and spring afresh where it receiv’d the blow;
like growing Hydra by Alcides slain,
lop off one head another sprouts again

Thus the accompanying picture shows a tree stump with the axe embedded and sprouting new growth.

Perfecta Casada 698.d.36
Fr Luis, La perfecta casada (Salamanca, 1583)  698.d.36.

It’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t common for authors to display their devices on the title pages of their publications: that space was normally reserved for the printer’s device or the patron’s arms.

And if further proof were needed that this was Fr Luis’s choice, Michael J. Fulton shows that the emblem wasn’t used until Fr Luis came out of jail, and after that he used it repeatedly.

A cultured act of defiance to Fr Luis’s persecutors: Cut me down and I’ll be stronger.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies


Commentaria in Pentateuchum Mosis auctore R. P.Cornelio Cornelii A Lapide (Antwerp, 1714) 3.g.12

Michael J. Fulton, ‘The Ab Ipso Ferro Motif in the Works of Fray Luis de León’, Romance Studies, 21:1 (2003), 11-23. P.903/861

The odes of Horace, translated into English verse by Henry Coxwell, Gent. (Oxford, 1718). 011388.c.32

Miguel de la Pinta Llorente, Proceso criminal contra el hebraista salmantino Martín Martínez de Cantalapiedra (Madrid, 1946) 05107.i.49.

Miguel de la Pinta Llorente, Proceso criminal contra el biblista Alonso Gudiel (Madrid, 1961) 4869.c.15.

This blog is published as part of Banned Books Week 2017 (24-30 September).  Banned-Books-Week-Logo

Banned Books Week was first initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. The 2017 UK contribution to Banned Books Week features events staged by a variety of cultural organisations including the British Library, Free Word, Royal Society of Literature and Islington Library and Heritage Services. British Library events can be found here.


21 September 2017

Candide or Candidus? A Swedish translation of the English translation of the French ‘translation from the German’

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The British Library has recently acquired the first Swedish translation of Voltaire’s Candide, ou l’Optimisme, translated as Candidus, eller alt til det bästa (1783). Voltaire’s 1759 philosophical picaresque novel about its eponymous hero’s gradual disillusionment from an unfettered optimism in the world has been called the ‘the most clandestine work of the century’. So clandestine, in fact, that scholars continue to debate the first place of publication and the first version of the text. The critique of the religious and political establishment ever-present in Voltaire’s works made them too dangerous to publish openly and Voltaire and his publishers honed the art of clandestine publication and circulation.

Candidus title page
Voltaire, Candidus eller Alt til det bästa. öfwersättning af engelskan (Västerås, 1783)  RB.23.a.37745

Ira O. Wade, in his article on the first edition of Candide, explains the methods developed by Voltaire and his publishers to avoid the censors of Paris and Geneva, where he had moved by this point:

Clandestinity was practiced in many ways: a book could be published, for instance, in Paris and place-marked Amsterdam; in London and Amsterdam and smuggled to Paris; or in some provincial French city (Lyons, Avignon, Rouen) and circulated through a Parisian colporteur. Voltaire had used all these methods. In every one of these places there were printers, or at least a printer, eager and willing to serve him. […] In the case of a very clandestine work, Voltaire would use multiple printers and simultaneous editions.

Wade’s forensic analysis of no less than 17 editions, all published in 1759, allows him to create a schema that identifies which was logically the first edition, from which the others originated. Multiple printers in different countries meant that the English-speaking world did not have to wait long for their Candid or Candidus, published the same year, while new and variant editions of the French were simultaneously being produced. The British Library has eight 1759 Candides in English, six published in London and one each in Edinburgh and Dublin.

Our Swedish edition, was printed in Västerås in 1783 by Johan Laurentius Horrn and is one of only three known copies, the other two belonging to the Kungliga Biblioteket in Stockholm and the Universität Greifswald. The text is however a translation from an English edition rather than the original French, whichever the original might be. This then poses the question, which English edition did the 1783 Swedish translation derive from? Thankfully, Wade can help us here too. He tells us that there are two groups of 1759 English editions; one group which translated Wade’s bet on the first edition – with the English title, Candidus – and another group descending from a variant of that first edition – with the English title, Candid. Wade delineates the differences between the variant and the original and it suffices to look at just one example for us to decide on the origins of the Swedish translation.

In chapter V, ‘Tempête, naufrage, tremvlement de terre, & ce qui advent du docteur Pangloss, de Candide, & de l’anabatiste Jacques’, Doctor Pangloss is attempting to console some victims of the Lisbon earthquake by explaining how things could not have been otherwise in the best of all possible worlds. Pangloss utters the lines: ‘Car […] tout ceci est ce qu’il y a de mieux’, in other words, ‘all this is for the best’. Except, in the original French edition, we find the words ‘car […] c’est une nécessité que si un Univers existe’, or, ‘it is necessary for such a universe to exist’. Wade shows how those 1759 English editions entitled Candid, rather than Candidus, correspond to the variant rather than the original, and contain the translation of Pangloss’s clause, ‘because, said he, all this is fittest and best’, corresponding to ‘tout ceci…’ It is this version of the line that we find in the Swedish translation, which it renders, ‘alt detta är tjenligast och bäst’. Thus, we at least know that our Swedish first edition has come from this particular strand of Candide translations into English.

In the anonymous Swedish translator’s preface, addressed to the also unknown ‘Herr J. L.’, the translator points to the lack of masterpieces of translation. They are all too often produced by those without and intimate enough understanding of the original or translation languages or both, he says. Assurances are given that the text has been written ‘by a man who understands the language from which the translation has been made’. The preface ends with the self-effacing respect of the translator:

If my essay has only been able to entertain You in Your moments of leisure, I assure You that it would be my greatest delight. My purpose would then have been fully achieved and with the great Westphalian philosopher Doctor Pangloss I could with complete certainty say: All is for the best.

But our small investigation has inspired more questions than answers. Why does the Swedish first edition translate from the English and not the French? For a country so clearly under the influence of French ideas in the 18th century, the answer is not obvious. Is there a connection between translator and the very anglophile city of Gothenburg? Is the idea of a ‘Öfwersättning af Engelskan’ (‘Translation from English’) actually an ironic addition to complement Voltaire’s own misleading subtitle, ‘Traduit de l’allemand de Mr. le docteur Ralph. Avec les additions qu’on a trouvés dans la poche du docteur lorsqu’il mourut à Minden l’an de grace 1759’ (‘translated from the German of Dr. Ralph with additions found in the doctor’s pocket when he died, at Minden, in the year of our Lord 1759’)? Why did it take until 1783 for Candide to be translated into Swedish and why then? Who might the anonymous translator be and to whom is his preface dedicated, the mysterious Herr J. L?

With so many questions left, it is hard not to feel more like Candide, l’Optimiste, at the end of the novel rather than at the beginning, when faced with the challenge of understanding the story behind this translation!

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections (translation of the translator’s preface by Peter Hogg, former Curator Scandinavian Studies)

References/further Reading

Ira O. Wade, Voltaire and Candide: A Study in the Fusion of History, Art, and Philosophy (Princeton, 1959) W.P.8969/10.

Ira O. Wade, ‘The First Edition of Candide: A Problem of Identification’, The Princeton University Library Chronicle, 22 (2), 1959, pp. 63-88. Ac.1833.h/2.

Candid: or, All for the best. Translated from the French. The second edition, carefully revised and corrected (London, 1759), Cup.406.i.5.(1.) 

14 September 2017

150 Years of Capital

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The British Library claims an important relationship with Karl Marx and his associates. Arriving to London as an exile in 1849, Marx became a familiar face in the reading rooms of the British Library (then part of the British Museum), making use of their extensive collections to pursue information that would later prove foundational to his famous critique of political economy, Capital. The first edition of this canonical work was received with little fanfare, selling only 1000 copies in its first four years. In 1872, Marx himself presented a copy, published in German, for our collections (C.120.b.1). The donation was acknowledged like any other, with a cursory record in a large, leather-bound index that now sits in our corporate archives. Now, 150 years since its original publication date on 14 September 1867, it is among our most treasured texts.

  Marx register
Marx’s donation index entry. BL Corporate Archives DH53/6

In preparation for the 2018 bicentenary of Marx’s birth, we have been tracing the course of his time with the British Library. It is a well-trodden path; few figures have been subject to as much intense historical and ideological scrutiny, and it is hard to believe that after two centuries our explorations may yield new discoveries. But it would seem that the Library still has secrets to give up. This week, consulting the donation indexes led to the discovery that Marx also presented a second copy of Capital, this one in French.

Marx French
Title page of Le Capital (Paris, 1872) C.120.g.2.

The text, with its intricately-embellished chapter headings and impressive title page, is a thing to behold. Closer inspection also reveals various handwritten annotations in the margins of the page. Words are crossed out, better alternatives suggested, and minor errors deleted. In his search for a common unit of value between two comparable commodities – cloth and coat – the word toile (‘linen’) is substituted for the less accurate drap (‘sheet’): 

Marx corrections 1   Marx corrections 2
Handwritten corrections in the donated copy of Le Capital

There is good reason to suspect that these annotations are written in the author’s own hand. The birth of the French edition was, for Marx, lengthy and tortuous. In his opinion:

although the French edition…has been prepared by a great expert in both languages, he has often translated too literally. I have therefore found myself compelled to re-write whole passages in French, to make them accessible to the French public. It will be all the easier later on to translate the book from French into English and the Romance languages. (Letter to Nikolai Danielson, 28 February 1872, MECW, vol.44, p.327)

One is inclined to feel some sympathy for the long-suffering translator, Joseph Roy, working as he was from the second German edition of Capital handwritten in Marx’s famously dreadful scrawl. Marx was a ruthless editor, and it is easy to imagine the famously rigorous intellectual leafing through the copy en route to the library, unable to resist making a few last-minute alterations.

Marx was also a constantly evolving writer, and the ideas contained in the French edition differed significantly from those of its predecessor. Notably, the much-discussed section outlining the fetishism of commodities was refined. Where the German edition concerns itself with the fantastical appearance of the commodity, the French edition foregrounds the necessary reality of ‘material relations between persons and social relations between things’. In short, then, this is a work unpopulated by phantoms; instead, we begin to see how the workings of capital come to modify the essence of human personhood. Marx himself claimed that the French edition ‘possessed a scientific value independent of the original and should be consulted even by readers familiar with German’. Still, it was long neglected by the Anglophone world, largely due to Engels’s own preference for the earlier German incarnation.

  Marx Register 2
Donation index entry for the final instalment of Le Capital. BL Corporate Archives DH53/7

The donation registers show that the French edition was delivered to the British Library in six instalments, between 12 October 1872 and 8 January 8 1876. This period corresponds with various complications in Marx’s life, with frequent bouts of insomnia and liver disease affecting his ability to work. In a letter to Friedrich Sorge on 4 August 1874 (MECW, vol.45, p.28), Marx lamented that ‘that damned liver complaint has made such headway that I was positively unable to continue the revision of the French translation (which actually amounts almost to complete rewriting)’. So the staggered delivery of the manuscript likely reflects these intellectual and physical obstacles, but it is also revealing of the audience that Marx had in mind for his work. The French edition was initially published in a serialized format in workers’ newspapers between 1872 and 1875. ‘In this form,’ Marx wrote,‘the book will be more accessible to the working-class, a consideration which to me outweighs everything else.’ However, he fretted that the French public, ‘always impatient to come to a conclusion…zealously seeking the truth’, would be frustrated by the wait between instalments. A puzzling concern for a man whose work had hitherto been received with so little public zeal.

For the Library’s administrators, these piecemeal instalments of Capital, and interactions with its author, only proved something of a mild inconvenience. In a letter dated 17 July 1873, the Library’s Assistant Secretary wrote to William Butler Rye, Keeper of Printed Books, with the following request:

Dear Mr. Rye,
I am directed by Mr. Jones to forward to you fasc. IV of the French edition of Das Kapital. In a letter received from Dr. Karl Marx on the 15th, he says: “I feel not sure whether or not I have sent the 6th and last fascicile [sic] of the first volume of the German edition” (of Das Kapital). Would you be so good as to communicate with Dr. Marx on the object: he writes from No.1 Maitland Park Road.
Believe me,
Yours truly,
Thomas Butler

Butler letter 1 Butler letter 2 Butler letter 3
Letter to William Butler Rye, BL Corporate Archives DH4/13

Izzy Gibbin, UCL Anthropology.  (Izzy is working with the British Library on a doctoral placement scheme looking at ways to mark the bicentenary of Marx’s birth)


Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Collected works (MECW) (London, 1975-2004) X.0809/543.

11 September 2017

International Collaboration: a Dutch Polymath and a Czech Printer in 17th-Century Rome

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We do not often realise just how much collaboration took place between foreigners working abroad rather than in their native countries in 17th-century Europe. One interesting example of such a collaboration is that between a Dutchman, Cornelius Meyer, and a Czech printer, Jan Jakub (or Giovanni Giacomo) Komárek, who worked and collaborated in Rome, a veritable hive of intellectual activity at that time.

Meyer Arte de restituire tp
Title-page of Meyer’s L’arte di restituire a Roma la tralasciata navigatione del suo Tevere (Rome, 1685), 49.h.10 (1).

Little is known of Cornelius Meyer except that he was born in Holland in 1629, was generally accepted to be a polymath and trained as an architect, civil engineer and an engraver. He moved to Rome, one of the most vibrant and active capitals in Europe, in the 1680s and died there in 1701. He is principally remembered for his studies on technology, particularly his masterminding improvements to the navigability of the River Tiber in his L’arte di restituire a Roma la tralasciata navigatione del suo Tevere.

Meyer Nuovi ritrovamenti Dragon
Title-page of Meyer’s Nuovi ritrovamenti, divisi in due parti (Rome, 1689-96) 49.h.10 (2), showing the alleged dragon seen near the Tiber

He is also remembered for his description and detailed account of the sighting of a dragon ‘nelle paludi fuori di Roma’, in December 1691. Despite his detailed and beautiful engravings of the beast’s skeletal remains, Meyer’s account of the dragon was an elaborate hoax not unlike ‘Piltdown man’ but was so skilfully produced and illustrated that he duped many learned men and scientific experts.

Meyer Occhiali
Engraving of three wearers of different kinds of spectacles, from Nuovi ritrovamenti

Meyer’s engraving of spectacles and their wearers for his work on various technologies, Nuovi ritrovamenti, divisi in due parti, printed by Komarek on behalf of the Accademia Fisico-matematica, one of the most important scientific academies in Rome, is extremely finely detailed, recalling similar images by Holbein. It imparts a very human perspective on what could have been a dryish discussion of the important science of optics, which had made very considerable advances since Galileo first used the telescope to study the heavens systematically. Moreover, by depicting the wearers of the spectacles in fine detail, two with fulsome beards, all three wearing caps or bonnets, and two wearing beautifully detailed ruffs, thereby modelling their visual aids, Meyer imparts a sense of scale and proportion to his illustration and is able to show the size of the pince-nez spectacles and their respective lenses he has designed (one set of which is even tinted) to their best advantage and how well they would look and fit on the noses of prospective clients.

Meyer Nuovi Ritrovamenti 1689
Title-page of the 1689 volume of Nuovi ritrovamenti, with Komarek’s imprint ‘all’Angelo custode’.

Despite the Italianization of his forenames to Giovanni Giacomo, the printer Jan Jakub Komárek was born in Hradec Králové, in Bohemia, in 1648. He moved to Rome between 1669 and 1672 and was originally employed as a technician in the papal print works of the Congregazione della Propaganda della Fede, founded in 1622. He set up his own printing press at ‘all’Angelo custode’ and later, ‘alla fontana di Trevi’ and was active until 1700, publishing several liturgical works by Giovanni Giustino Ciampini, Andrea Pozzo’s celebrated Prospettiva, and works for the Accademia of the Collegio Clementino. The work is an excellent example of very effective networking and of the creation of considerable synergy between author and publisher and of truly international co-operation: a Dutchman having his work printed by a Czech printer in Italy.

This co-operation is also a very timely reminder of the very great debt that the whole continent of Europe, and Italy in particular, owes to Germany. It was a German, Johannes Gutenberg, who invented printing with moveable type in the 1450s, something which played such an important role in disseminating new texts and ideas, and created an ever-increasing demand for the printed word. But we should also not forget the debt owed by Italy to German printers and engravers, from Albrecht Dürer to Lucas Cranach. From the first introduction of printing to Italy in 1465 by Konrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, who worked in partnership at Subiaco, printing was firmly established in Italy by German printers.

Denis Reidy, former Curator Italian and Modern Greek Collections 

04 September 2017

No mean achievement: the first Basque New Testament

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The British Library possesses a fine copy of the New Testament in Basque, printed at La Rochelle in 1571. The principal translator was Joanes Leizarraga (1506-1601). Born at Briscous in the French Basque province of Labourd, he trained as a Catholic priest. However, by 1560 he had converted to Protestantism, later taking refuge in the territory of Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre. She herself had converted to Calvinism in 1559 and was the leading promoter of the Huguenot cause.

Leizarraga undertook the translation in 1563 at the behest of the Synod of Pau of the Reformed Church of Navarre-Béarn. The work is dedicated to Jeanne d’Albret, who financed the translation, and her coat of arms appears on the title page. Subsequently, in 1567, she appointed Leizarraga minister of the church of Labastide in Lower Navarre in 1567.

Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre-Béarn, by François Clouet (1570) (Image from the Gallica Digital Library via Wikimedia Commons)

As elsewhere in Reformation Europe, making the Bible available to the laity in the vernacular was a priority. Leizarraga, however, faced particular difficulties. The earliest surviving book in Basque was printed in Bordeaux as late as 1545. No copy has survived of a reported second book, a Spanish-Basque catechism, printed in Spanish Navarre in 1561. He was thus unable to draw on an established form of written Basque in producing his translation. Moreover, at this period Basque was spoken in a number of dialects and varied noticeably from village to village, ‘almost from house to house’ as Leizarraga himself remarks in the preliminaries addressed to ‘Heuscalduney’, the speakers of Basque. He resolved to create a generalized form of the language, based on three dialects: largely that of Labourd, plus Lower Navarrese and Souletin.

He was assisted in this by four other Basque ministers, of whom at least two came from Soule. Leizarraga and his collaborators based their text on a version of the French Geneva Bible but with regard also to the Vulgate and to the Greek. In so doing they effectively created a Basque literary language, although one that took many words directly from Latin. This is evident in a comparison between the opening verses of the Lord’s Prayer in Leizarraga’s version (L) and one in modern Basque (B). The borrowings from Latin are in bold:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew VI: 9-10).
L: Gure Aita ceruëtã aicena, sanctifica bedi hire icena. Ethor bedi hire resumá. Eguin bedi hire vorondatea ceruän beçala lurrean-ere.
B: Gure Aita zeruetan zaudena, santu izan bedi zure izena. Etor bedi zure erreinua, egin bedi zure nahia, zeruan bezala lurrean ere.

Subsequently, Basque developed in a less learned, more popular direction. Nonetheless, the work is of considerable value to grammarians and philologists when studying the language of Leizarraga’s day and its subsequent evolution.

The 1571 volume contains a number of additional texts. These include glossaries (e.g. of Hebrew and Greek proper names); a topical index to the New Testament; instructions on conducting various religious ceremonies, e.g. marriage; and a catechism for children. Two smaller works by Leizarraga were also published by the same press in La Rochelle in 1571: a religious calendar, including Easter Tables, and a Protestant catechism.

Basque NT
The Basque New Testament, Testamentu berria (La Rochelle: Pierre Hautin, 1571) 217.d.2.

It has been estimated that some 25 copies of the 1571 Basque New Testament survive. Four are in the UK: at the British Library, Bodleian Library, John Rylands Library and Cambridge University Library (from the collection of the British and Foreign Bible Society, presented by Louis Lucien Bonaparte). The BL copy is in the King’s Library and was thus acquired for George III’s collection and then donated to the British Museum in 1823. Its earlier history is unknown. In recent years, two copies have been auctioned in London and acquired by institutions in the Spanish Basque Country. The copy that belonged to the Marquis of Bute was sold at Sotheby’s in 1995 and bought by a Spanish bank, the Caja de Ahorros de Navarra. Since 2014 it has been deposited in the Biblioteca Nacional de Navarra. In 2007 another copy was purchased at Christie’s by Euskaltzaindia, the Basque Language Academy. The high prices paid for these copies at auction, particularly in 1995, indicate the iconic status that Leizarraga’s translation now has for the Basque people.

Geoff West, former Curator Hispanic Collections

References/Further reading

Historia de la literatura vasca. Ed. Patrizio Urquiz Sarasua. (Madrid, 2000) HLR. 899.92

Lafon, René, Le système du verbe basque au XVIe siècle. (Bordeaux, 1943) X.902/3245

Leizarraga, Ioannes, Iesus Christ gure iaunaren Testamentu berria… ed. Th. Linschmann & Hugo Schuchardt. (Bilbao, 1990) [A reprint of the 1900 Strasburg edition] YA.2003.a.33511

Olaizola Iguiñiz, Juan María de, El Reino de Navarra en la encrucijada de su historia: el protestantismo en el País Vasco. 2nd ed. (Pamplona, 2011) YF.2011.a.26524

Villasante, Luis, Historia de la literatura vasca, 2nd ed. ([Oñate?], 1979) YA.1986.a.6853.

06 August 2017

Belarus Celebrates 500 Years of Printing

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On 6 August, Belarus will celebrate 500 years of printing, and also 500 years of East Slavonic printing. On that day in 1517 Francysk Skaryna (in various traditions his name has also been spelt as Francis Skaryna, Frantsisk Skorina, Franciscus Scorina and more) published the Psalter, one of the books of the Bible.

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f242r Portrait of Skaryna from his translation of the Old Testament Books of Samuel and Kings, Bivliia ruska: Knigi tsarstv (Prague, 1518). C.36.f.4

Skaryna was born in the oldest Belarusian city, Polatsk. He was educated in universities in Kraków and Padua, and started his publishing endeavours in Prague – then one of the main centres of printing – and continued in Vilnius, which remained the most important centre of Belarusian culture and history from medieval times until the 1920s.

In the Belarusian cultural pantheon, Francysk Skaryna has a very special place. He was the most outstanding figure of the Renaissance and its humanist tradition in Belarus. He is also the most important Belarusian writer and translator of the period; an educator, philosopher and theologian, a fascinating entrepreneur and innovator, and an example of passionate patriotism.

Skaryna intended to publish the whole Bible. Between 1517 and 1519/20 he managed to produce more than half of the Old Testament – 23 books. These were translated into the Belarusian version of the Church Slavonic language then widely used in the Orthodox Church. Skaryna’s translation is close to the ‘Benatska Bible’ published in the Czech language in Venice in 1506 (C.18.b.2.); however, he consulted texts in ancient Biblical languages, as well as Church Slavonic manuscripts. The text of his Ruthenian Bible (Bivliia ruska) was supplemented by the translator’s prologues and commentaries in the Old Belarusian language.

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f001rBeginning of Bivliia ruska: Knigi tsarstv

In the prologue to the Psalter Skaryna explained his motives: “Seeing the usefulness of this small book, I decided to print the Psalter in Ruthenian words in Slavonic language for the glory of God in the first place [...] and for the good of everyone, because the merciful God sent me to the world from this people.” Skaryna intended his books for distribution among the common people (pospolityj lud) and other classes of his compatriots, the people of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (contemporary Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine). Interestingly, in virtually all prologues to his books, the printer mentioned his birthplace, the glorious city of Polack.

In 1520, Skaryna left Prague for Vilnius, the capital city of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, to open his own printing house. Printed Cyrillic books were still a novelty there, and the underdeveloped market dictated a different kind of literature. In Vilnius, Skaryna published The Small Travel Book (1522) and Apostol (1525) intended for daily prayer use by the largest possible audience, both clerics and lay people, as well as for use in primary schools.

Skaryna C.51.b.5 f001r

 Opening of  the Psalter (Vilna, 1522-1523). C.51.b.5

Scholars and churches in Belarus continue to debate Skaryna’s religious affiliation. It is likely that he was born into an Orthodox family but educated by Roman Catholics. He served as a secretary to Bishop Jan of Vilnius and may have converted to Roman Catholicism. In his own prayers (Orthodox in form), Skaryna referred to Catholic dogmas which allows us to assume that he might have been a convinced Uniate (or a Greek Catholic, in the contemporary terminology). Skaryna travelled widely throughout Protestant Europe and was at least once accused by a polemicist of being a “heretic Hussite”, a follower of Jan Hus who was one of the forerunners of the Reformation. Church calendars in Skaryna’s books have some elements in common with the Protestant tradition.

After Belarus became part of the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century, all Skaryna’s books were removed from Belarus. They ended up in state libraries in Moscow, St Petersburg, Vilnius and various private collections. Just over 500 books by the first Belarusian and East Slavonic printer are known to survive today, more than half of them in Russia. A significant number of Skaryna’s publications are found in Ukraine. Skaryna’s books were well known in Ukraine and influenced Ukrainian Biblical translation and printing traditions. In Britain, the British Library, Cambridge University Library  and Trinity College Cambridge have copies of Skaryna’s books. The Belarusian Library in London also has a small fragment of one of the Prague editions. Three digitised books printed by Skaryna from the British Library's collections  (Books of Samuel and Kings C.36.f.4; Psalter C.51.b.5; Acts and Epistles; C.51.b.6) will be donated to the National Library of Belarus in September 2017. 

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f065rOpening of part 2 of  Bivliia ruska: Knigi tsarstv

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f139vOpening of Book 3 of  Bivliia ruska: Knigi tsarstv

In 1925, both the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Belarusian community in the western part of the country – then controlled by Poland – celebrated 400 years of Belarusian printing. The date related to the first book Skaryna published in Vilnius. For the occasion, the Belarusian State University Library (now National Library of Belarus) purchased ten of Skaryna’s books from a private collector in Leningrad. Since then, no more of Skaryna’s works were acquired for Belarus until February 2017 when one of the Belarusian banks announced the purchase of a copy of The Small Travel Book for its corporate collection. Currently, this copy is on tour to Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy - countries where Skaryna lived - before returning in September 2017 to Minsk for a grand exhibition, ‘Francis Skaryna and his epoch’.


The first 17 volumes of the facsimile edition of Skaryna's books (Minsk, 2013- ) donated to the British Library by the National Library of Belarus.  Catalogued and photographed  by Rimma Lough. ZF.9.a.11377

The National Library of Belarus, meanwhile, is about to complete a multi-volume facsimile reproduction of all Skaryna’s books (picture above). Digital copies for this project were offered by many libraries and collections from around the world. The National Library is donating this publication to major libraries in Belarus and abroad, as well as to all institutions preserving Skaryna’s works. On February 27 this year a delegation from the National Library of Belarus presented a copy of the facsimile edition to the British Library in the special event held in the British Library. 

Skaryna Kristian Jensen

Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections and Curation, greeting the audience at the Belarusian event in the British Library. 

Alongside this project, the National Library of Belarus has been acquiring as many digital versions of all known copies of Skaryna’s publications as possible to create a comprehensive collection and make it accessible to researchers. The Library has truly been the driving force in celebrating 500 years of Belarusian and East Slavonic book printing. Hundreds of events have taken place in Belarus and abroad, and more are still ahead, among them an International Congress “500 Years of Belarusian Printing” and the most comprehensive exhibition of Skaryna’s works; both are taking place in Minsk in September 2017. 

Skaryna C.36.f.4 f241v

Colophon of Bivliia ruska: Knigi tsarstv with the imprint information: Ū velikom Starom meste Prazskom, Tyseshta Pe̡tsot I Osmʺnadesetʹ 

Ihar Ivanou, Head of Learning Resources, QA Higher Education, London

Further reading:

Ebenezer Henderson, Biblical researches and Travels in Russia, including a tour in the Crimea; and the passage of the Caucasus: with observations on the state of the Rabbinical and Karaite Jews, and the Mohammedan and Pagan tribes, inhabiting the southern provinces of the Russian Empire (London, 1826).  1048.k.28.

Cyrillic books printed before 1701 in British and Irish collections :a union catalogue, compiled by Ralph Cleminson ... [et al.]. (London, 2000). 2708.h.903 and m01/33811

Alexander Nadson,  Skaryna's Prayer Book in:

Arnold McMillin, Francis Skaryna’s Biblical Prefaces and their Place in Early Byelorussian Literature in:

P. V. Vladimirov, Doktor Francisk Skorina: ego perevody, pečatnyja izdanija i jazyk (Munich, 1989). X.0909/738(85)

Frantsisk Skorina i ego vremia : entsiklopedicheskiĭ spravochnik  (Minsk, 1990). YA.1994.b.231

V. F. Shmataŭ,  Iskusstvo knigi Frantsiska Skoriny (Moscow, 1990). 2708.h.486

 E. L. Nemirovskiĭ, Frantsisk Skorina : zhiznʹ i deiatelʹnostʹ belorusskogo prosvetitelia. (Minsk,1990). 2708.e.1972

H. IA. Halenchanka,   Frantsysk Skaryna--belaruski i ŭskhodneslavianski pershadrukar. (Minsk, 1993). YA.1996.a.12908

01 August 2017

Reforming Switzerland

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With 1 August being Swiss National Day and 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it seems like an good moment to look at the Reformation in Switzerland. The country boasts two of the early centres of European Protestantism, Zurich and Geneva, and the latter city is still in some ways synonymous with Protestantism.

Zurich was the first Swiss city to introduce the Reformation, under the guidance of Huldrych Zwingli, preacher and later canon at the Grossmünster, one of Zurich’s most important churches. From his first appointment in 1519 Zwingli began to introduce reformist ideas, influenced by both Luther and Erasmus, into his sermons and practice.

Reformation Zwingli portrait
Huldrych Zwingli, from Theodore de Bèze, Icones, id est veræ imagines virorum doctrina simul et pietate illustrium ... ([Geneva], 1580). 611.e.3.

But the decisive move, seen as the real start of Zurich’s Reformation, came in March 1522 when Zwingli attended a meal in the house of the printer Christoph Froschauer during which sausages were served. This may sound trivial to modern minds, but the ‘Zürcher Wurstessen’ was no ordinary sausage supper. It took place during the fasting season of Lent when the Church required its members to abstain from eating meat. By condoning the breaking of this fast, Zwingli was openly challenging the Church’s authority. He wrote a defence of the action and general condemnation of fasting, claiming it had no scriptural authority, and followed this up in with an attack on clerical celibacy.

Erkiesen und Freyheit 3905.d.131
An edition of Huldrych Zwingli’s condemnation of religious fasting, Von Erkiesen und Freyhait der Speisen ... ([Zurich, 1522]). 3905.d.131.

 The Reformation progressed in Zurich, but not without controversy. Zwingli was opposed not only by the traditional Church authorities but by more radical reformers who believed he was too compromising in his stance. Zwingli also disagreed with Luther on key points, notably the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist. A debate between Luther, Zwingli and their respective supporters in 1529 failed to resolve their differences.

Meanwhile, although some Swiss cities and cantons followed Zurich’s reforming lead, others banded together to defend their traditional faith, leading to the first of several confessional conflicts over the coming centuries. Zwingli himself was killed in one of these wars in 1531.

Five years later a young French theologian, Jean Calvin, settled in Geneva. Following a conversion to the reformed faith, Calvin had published Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutes of the Chrisitan Religion) as an expression of his own faith and an interpretation of reformed religion for new believers, which he would revise and enlarge throughout his life.

Reformation Calvin Institutio
The first edition of Calvin’s Institutio Christianae Religionis (Basel, 1536). C.53.aa.16.

Calvin and his associates began to introduce their brand of religious reform to Geneva. After initial difficulties Calvin was gradually able to develop the city into a centre of Protestantism. It became a magnet for scholars and also a refuge for reformers persecuted in their own countries. Among the latter was William Whittingham, whose English translation of the Bible, known as the ‘Geneva Bible’, became standard in contemporary Protestant Britain and remained popular among noncoformists even after the publication of the King James Bible.

Reformation Calvin portrait
Jean Calvin, From Bèze, Icones...

Another refugee, the Scottish reformer John Knox, described Geneva as ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was … since the days of the Apostles’, but not everyone was so impressed. Voltaire would later complain that, by closing down the convents, Calvin and his associates had managed to ‘turn all society into a convent’ and that ‘for more than two hundred years there was not a single musical instrument allowed in the city of Geneva’. Calvin’s Geneva still has a reputation as a rigidly puritanical society run as a near-theocracy, where popular pleasures were banned and moral standards strictly enforced.

Yet like that other European stronghold of Calvinism, the Netherlands, Geneva also developed a reputation in the following centuries for tolerance and would offer refuge to figures such as Voltaire himself, as well as remaining a home of strict Protestant observance. Today the city actually has a higher proportion of Catholic than Protestant residents, but still celebrates its history as ‘the Rome of Protestantism’.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

25 July 2017

A rediscovered incunable

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Books in the iconic King’s Library Tower offer the most publicly visible representation of early printed books in the British Library. Specialist, in-depth catalogue descriptions  help us know and use what is there, but one vellum-bound copy of a popular 15th-century work has somehow sat neglected on its shelves for a couple of hundred years. How can this be?

The copy of Modus legendi abbreviaturas has a shelfmark 166.i.21 but has no British Library catalogue record; this effectively means nobody has been in a position to know about its existence.

Modus legendi f.1
The first printed page of Modus legendi abbreviaturas (166.i.21). The stamp used to identify King George III’s books is pressed over its first line of type.

Lists of books must be arranged meaningfully to be useful. Historically, many fashions and rules for description have been followed but key components are expected: authors and titles; the places and dates of printing and the name of the printer. A book’s title page is easily taken for granted – but how do you describe a book without the quickly accessible information contained on a title page or in a book’s colophon?

Modus legendi abbreviaturas is a reference book for studying Roman and Canon law, a glossary for unpicking the thousands of abbreviations, contractions and symbols used in Latin legal manuscripts and texts. It is, perhaps, the first manual of palaeography. More than 40 editions were printed in the 15th century alone; the first is thought to date from 1476.

Our copy that has lurked at 166.i.21 presents a problem because it is ‘Absque ulla nota’, i.e. it has no identifying marks such as printer, location or date. This may be one of the reasons why it was neglected. Past librarians could identify the work from the text but crucially could not specify where, when and by whom the book was printed.

Modus legendi KL cat Entry for 166.i.21 in the Bibliothecae Regiae Catalogus

 The Bibliothecae Regiae Catalogus compiled after George III’s death by F.A. Barnard and privately printed between 1820 and 1829, lists the book under the subject heading, ‘Jurisprudentia’ (its author was unknown at the time). Details about its 34 lines (of type) and 48 pages are given as distinguishing features. The shelfmark 166.i.21 is written in pencil but this information was apparently never carried over into the Library’s main catalogue.

Over the centuries, librarians and bibliographers have collated close studies of printers’ type to help identify where early hand-press printed works may have originated. Our copy here has a note in pencil, ‘Not in Panzer’, a reference to its absence from what was the first comprehensive attempt to catalogue incunabula, Georg Wolfgang Panzer’s Annales Typographici  (1793-1797).

 As closer bibliographic study of print type and other evidence has progressed it has been possible to identify or estimate the people, places and dates associated with elusive ‘unsigned’ works.

Modus legendi GK1

The beginning of the entry for the numerous editions of Modus legendi abbreviaturas in , ‘GK1’ - the first general printed catalogue of books in the British Museum, published in the 1890s. The attribution to the ‘R-Printer’ (now believed to be Adolf Rusch) is an example of how print types are used to identify or describe unsigned editions. The ‘161.i.21’ edition, in the collection for 70 years by this time, is missing from the record.

Research into books printed in the Low Countries suggest that the edition represented in the copy at 161.i.21 is the work of Gerardus de Leempt (active 1473-1488) and that it was probably printed in Utrecht, Nijmegen or even Cologne. De Leempt was a journeyman printer – first and foremost a skilled type-cutter – who collaborated with others to produce books. Few of his books were signed.

Modus legendi Historia colophon

Gerardus de Leempt’s name at the end of his printing of Petrus Comestor’s Historia scholastica (1473) IB.4 7031 – if only he had signed his name at the end of his other imprints, like 161.i.21!

The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue  states that there are ten known surviving copies of this particular de Leempt imprint; the rediscovery of this book happily adds another.

Fittingly for a work dedicated to deciphering texts, further research on the text of Modus legendi abbreviaturas suggests that the author’s identity – Werner von Schussenried, a jurist from Speyer – is concealed/revealed in an acrostic formed by taking the first letters of each line in a section of the book’s text (it doesn’t exactly jump out of the page though!).

The rediscovery of this copy provides opportunity to examine the particular edition more closely and it is quite exciting to see that the watermark on the paper used for de Leempt’s edition suggests that it may actually be the earliest of the 40 or so editions of von Schussenried’s legal glossary.

Modus legendi watermark

Watermark from a page in the 161.i.21 copy of Modus legend abbreviaturas – a bull’s head, curved muzzle, and cross – used on paper in the Low Countries in 1473, perhaps dating Leempt’s book to three years before what is thought to be the first edition from 1476.

 So how was this copy saved from obscurity? Many might think it reprehensible that the book has been missed for so many years, but arguably its rediscovery is also a sign of the Library’s good custodianship. It was found by the Library’s dedicated Collections Audit Officer undertaking systematic checks of shelf ranges against catalogue holdings.

It’s not unusual for ‘unrecorded’ copies of incunabula to be discovered sitting shyly on shelves in other national libraries. A comment in a review of a new catalogue of incunabula in the Summer 2014 issue of  The Book Collector (P.1901/86.), nails it somewhat, “If one wonders how it can be that so many generations have missed incunabula sitting on the shelves ... at the same time one must be grateful that a thorough search is now being made.”

 Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 Further reading:

Wytze Gerbens Hellinga and Lotte Hellinga, The Fifteenth-Century Printing Types of the Low Countries. Translated from the Dutch by D. A. S. Reid. (Amsterdam, 1966) L.R.412.d.6

Incunabula printed in the Low Countries: a census edited by Gerard van Thienen & John Goldfinch. (Nieuwkoop, 1999). 2745.a.3/36

Victor Scholderer,  ‘The Author of the Modus legendi abbreviaturas,’ The Library, third ser., II, 1911, pp. 181-182. Ac.9670/24.