The survival rates of early printed books can vary widely. Some, like the first Latin edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, survive in great numbers. Others have vanished altogether. The majority of early books, however, survive in one copy only.1 These lonely exemplars are critical, if endangered witnesses to the early history of printing and to the various nascent economies that sprang up around the production and dissemination of books in early modern Europe.
In 1940, the BPL purchased just such an artifact: the last surviving copy of a book printed anonymously and without a date in northern Spain during the final years of the 15th century.2 A curious book, the main body of the text is excerpted from Jean Gerson’s Monotessaron and contains a version of the Passion of Jesus Christ, drawn together from the four gospels and illustrated with a series of highly stylized woodcuts.
A fragmentary variant of this edition at the British Library — also unique — was described by the bibliographer Robert Proctor in 1898 and by the incunabulist Konrad Haebler in 1903.3 Proctor and Haebler ascribed the BL fragment to the press of Friedrich Biel, an itinerant German craftsman who came to Burgos in 1485 by way of Basel and, working under the sobriquet Fadrique de Basilea, introduced printing to that city.
The BPL copy, from an edition published under the title La passion del eterno principe Ihesu Christo, is recognizably the work of Biel. He used the same elaborate, floral woodblock initials and the same typeface in a number of Burgos editions throughout the early and mid-1490s. The woodcuts themselves appear in both the BPL edition and the BL fragment.
The BPL’s Passion has been digitized and is now freely available online. It can be accessed at this link, while the bibliographic record in the BPL catalog, which contains a fuller description, is here. The BPL holds a significant collection of printed documents that survive in one copy only. From theological texts printed during the incunabular period to foundational documents of modern America to rare dramatic texts and poetry tracts, the the BPL’s collection of sole surviving copies is rich and varied. Over the next several months, this series of blog posts will detail a handful of these lonely survivors.
- Green, Jonathan, Frank McIntyre and Paul Needham. “The Shape of Incunable Survival and Statistical Estimation of Lost Editions” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 105, No. 2 (June 2011), p. 147
- Boston Public Library. “Fadrique de Basilea” More Books, vol. 17, no. 9 (Nov. 1942) p. 416
- Proctor, Robert. An Index to the Early Printed Books in the British Museum (London: Kegan Paul, 1898) no. 9593; Haebler, Konrad. Bibliografía ibérica del siglo XV (Leipzig: Hiersemann, 1903) no. 522