Glasgow Incunabula Project update (7/2/14)

Like manuscript books, many incunabula are decorated to varying degrees, whether by the fairly standard addition of rubricated initials, to those volumes with sumptuous opening pages featuring elaborate illuminated borders and historiated initials. Examples of miniatures, however, have been found far less frequently in the books in our collection. It is therefore pleasing to note the inclusion of a miniature depicting Boniface VIII in our copy of the 1476 edition of the Liber sextus Decretalium, printed by Peter Schoeffer. This, of course, is an author portrait (although since Boniface died in the early 14th century, we can’t really comment on its accuracy!).

Boniface VIII seated on a throne, wearing the triple crown and holding a book and papal staff in his hands (Sp Coll BD9-a.11)

Miniature of Boniface in Mainz 1476 edition of Liber sextus Decretalium

Illuminated miniature in Bonifacius VIII, Pont. Max.: Liber sextus Decretalium (Sp Coll BD9-a.11)

Decorated opening page of Mainz 1476 edition of Liber sextus Decretalium

This important work on canon law was first printed in 1465 by the partnership of Fust and Schoeffer. As a printer specializing in legal texts, Schoeffer went on to produce a further three editions of this work, including this 1476 publication. We have already catalogued an earlier Schoeffer edition from 1473, while this batch also includes a copy of the work printed in 1477 by Michael Wenssler of Basel (which is, in fact, a very close reprint of Schoeffer’s 1476 edition). That we have three different editions of this work is some indication of its popularity in the 15th century – although, querying the ISTC database would seem to show that holding three editions is really nothing, given that nearly 60 different incunabula editions of the work are documented.

Our copy of the 1476 Mainz edition has an early monastic provenance, with a 15th/16th century inscription recording that the book was donated to the Dominican convent of S. Maria in Vienna by a Johannes Smawss (““Iste liber est conue[n]t[us] Wie[nnensis] ordi[ni]s fr[atru]m p[rae]dicator[um] donat[us] eid[em] a venera[bi]li olim(?) m[a]g[istro](?) artiu[m](?) johan[n]e smawss c[uius] a[n]i[m]a deo viuat”). Perhaps it was Smawss who commissioned the book’s decoration. As well as the miniature of Boniface, this includes (on the same page) a small three-line  illuminated “B” beginning the main text, and an attractive foliate stem in the central margin adorned with flowers in blue, mauve and red. The rest of the book is decorated throughout with standard initials in red or blue.

Colophon printed in red in Bonifacius VIII, Pont. Max.: Liber sextus Decretalium (Sp Coll BD9-a.11)

Colophon (printed in red) of Mainz 1476 edition of Liber sextus Decretalium

More research would have to be undertaken to ascertain where and when the decoration was applied to this copy, although it is tempting to speculate that it is of German origin given the book’s early provenance. Of course, it is always interesting to examine closely the different treatment of decoration in books, even in those volumes where it may be dismissed as being fairly “standard”. The decoration in the copy of the earlier Mainz 1473 edition that we hold is of a much more standard variety, consisting of initials and paragraph marks supplied throughout in alternate red and blue; however, the entire scheme may be regarded as incomplete since the space at the beginning of Book one (the same as in the 1476 edition where the miniature of Boniface and the small illuminated initial ‘B’ is found) has not been filled in and remains blank. The copy from Wenssler’s Basel edition has a different decorative scheme, meanwhile, with a fourteen-line penwork initial “B” being supplied in red and blue with reserved white in the incipit space.

Penwork initial in Bonifacius VIII, Pont. Max.: Liber sextus Decretalium (Sp Coll BD9-a.11)

Penwork initial in Basel 1477 edition of Liber sextus Decretalium

Study of the differing methods and schemes of the rubrication to be found in incunabula is one area of research where there is still much to be learned and understood. Another book from this batch, for instance, is a copy of the Consolatio theologiae (Strassburg: Printer of Henricus Ariminensis (possibly Georg Reyser?), ca. 1478), containing well executed if fairly formulaic small illuminated initials.

Erroneous initial added in Johannes de Tambaco: Consolatio theologiae (Sp Coll Hunterian Bx.2.10)

Erroneous initial “D” added in Johannes de Tambaco: Consolatio theologiae

The seven line initial “D” found at the opening of Book one (folio 9v) is clearly the work of a professional, and similar examples might be found in countless books. However, it is in fact a mistake which gives us a glimmer of insight into the working practices of the 15th century craftsmen involved in book decoration. The “D” provided makes the word “dum” (“while”) in error for a “C” (to spell “cum”). Both words are perfectly acceptable Latin, but only “cum” (“with”) makes sense in the context. Printers often supplied small “guide” letters for scribes to follow in inserting letters manually, but not in this case. Did the person who decorated the book fully understand Latin? Was the mistake just not spotted until it was too late and then conveniently left as is, in the hope that nobody would notice (it is a very nice and intricately made initial, after all, incorporating several colours and flower motifs as well as being expensively embellished with gold). When you consider what a time consuming and painstaking task it must have been to insert hundreds (if not thousands) of initials in printed books, it is not surprising to come across such errors.

Margaret M. Smith* has referred to these craftsmen as working in a system in decay, and has raised some interesting points:

Rubrication was certainly a system designed for one technology – hand book production – which could hardly cope with the ramifications of a new technology. When a single manuscript copy of a text had taken months to write out, the additional labor of rubrication was hardly noticed, or at least it was in proportion to the labor of writing the text itself. But suddenly the single copy had become 200 to 300 or whatever, produced in much less time. Rubrication became the weakest link in an otherwise comparatively efficient flow of production, and a very considerable expense … Rubrication was destined to die out, belonging wholly to the old system of book production and being the opposite of everything that printing stood for …

To investigate more examples of rubricated and decorated books – ordered from the most elaborate to the most basic – visit our decoration index. We have also featured Schoeffer’s books in a number of earlier blogs.

* Margaret M. Smith ‘Patterns of incomplete rubrication in incunables and what they suggest about working methods’ in ed. Linda L. Brownrigg Medieval book production: assessing the evidence (Anderson-Lovelace: 1990).

The latest ten books to be detailed on the project website are:



Categories: Special Collections

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4 replies

  1. Hi there, really interesting post.
    I think there might be a typo in the first para – ‘Saint Boniface’ for ‘Boniface VIII’ – Dante would probably have had something to say about that! 🙂

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