Collections of Distinction

Digitizing the BPL’s Earliest Printed Books

by jmoschella

Thanks in large part to the support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library, cataloging, conservation, and digitization of the BPL’s 550+ incunables continues to move forward. In recent months, copies of many rare, early, and critically important editions have been digitized and made freely available online.

Listed below are a few recent highlights:


Higden, Ranulf. Policronicon
Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde, 1495
Bibliographic record
Link to digitized copy

The Policronicon was compiled by the English Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden (d. 1364). A historical chronicle divided into seven books, the Policronicon recounts the history of the world from Creation through Higden’s lifetime. One of many early chronicles in the BPL’s collections, the Policronicon, takes a special interest in Anglo-Saxon history. This edition is also noteworthy for the fact that it contains, on leaf 101, what is believed to be the earliest piece of music printed in England.


The small woodcut on fol. 101 of the 1495 Policronicon is the first piece of music printed in England (Q.404.21 FOLIO)



Albrecht von Scharfenberg. Der Jüngere Titurel
Strasbourg: Johann Mentelin, 1477
Bibliographic record
Link to digitized copy

The story of Titurel is essentially a prequel to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, a 13th-century romance recounting the titular Arthurian hero’s quest for the Holy Grail. Wolfram’s Titurel only survives in three manuscript fragments. This version, printed by Johann Mentelin in 1477, is based on an alternate retelling of the Titurel story, at first mistakenly attributed to Wolfram and now believed to have been composed ca. 1277 by Albrecht von Scharfenberg.


(Above) The first page of Jüngere Titurel (Q.404.63 FOLIO)



Balbi, Giovanni. Catholicon
Mainz: Johannes Gutenberg, 1460

Bibliographic record
Link to digitized copy

The Catholicon is an expansive Latin grammar and dictionary originally composed in 1286 by Giovanni Balbi. This, the first printed edition of the Catholicon, was issued anonymously at Mainz in 1460 and represents an ingenious and seemingly anachronistic leap forward in the technological history of printing. The highly innovative nature of the methods employed in the printing of the Catholicon, combined with its early date of production and Mainz origin has led scholars to convincingly attribute the book to the press of Johannes Gutenberg.


(Above) the final two pages of the Catholicon, showing handwritten decorative initials for the letters Y and Z, along with the colophon (Q.401.27 FOLIO)

Paul Needham has argued convincingly that the Catholicon was produced using an early version of stereotyping, through which the original setting of type was cast into individual, two-line metal slugs that could be (relatively) easily reconstituted for later printings. Thus, copies of the first edition and of the two subsequent impressions were not printed from a press with two 66-line columns of individually-set pieces of type locked into a forme on its bed, but rather by way of an unknown apparatus that held two columns of 33 two-line metal slugs.1

Needham’s theory accounts for the fact that three essentially identical impressions of the edition were issued on paper stocks produced ca. 1460, 1469, and 1472. During the hand-press era, producing different editions that are very similar would have required a great deal of skill. Producing editions that are truly identical — without any of the inevitable typographical variations that would result from the process of selecting and setting type by hand — is unheard of. Nonetheless, the three impressions of the Catholicon produced over the course of a dozen years are identical to one another, save for the almost imperceptible shifting of line pairs caused by the movement of the cast slugs. Without the use of early stereotyping, the only other way to achieve such uniformity between disparate impressions would have been through the use of a preventatively large quantity of standing type.



(Above) Observed under raking light, the blind impressions between the columns of print in the BPL’s vellum copy of the Catholicon present evidence of a printing process that had, until recently, remained unknown.

The BPL’s Catholicon is one of 11 extant vellum copies. These vellum copies, all printed in 1460, preserve important forensic clues that attest to the unusual production methods employed by Gutenberg’s shop. Unlike paper, the thicker vellum leaves have held a series of uniform indents and impressions created during the printing process itself, suggesting the presence of an apparatus that made use of wires and nails to fasten the slugs in place for printing.



Fridolin, Stephan. Schatzbehalter
Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1491
Bibliographic record
Link to digitized copy

Printed in 1491, Stephan Fridolin’s Schatzbehalter is a devotional book of meditations on the life and Passion of Christ. This edition is recognized to be one of the masterpieces of book artistry from the incunabular period. The 96 woodcuts set within the text were executed by the Nuremberg artist Michael Wolgemut, who also collaborated with the publisher, Anton Koberger, on the Nuremberg Chronicle.


(Above) A woodcut in the Schatzbehalter by Michael Wolgemut depicting Jesus embracing death. In addition to his distinguished career as a working artist, Wolgemut was also Albrecht Dürer’s teacher.

The BPL Schatzbehalter is in a nearly pristine contemporary binding connected directly to the Koberger shop itself. The front pastedown is comprised of a leaf of waste from the very same edition.


A comparison of the printer’s waste on the pastedown to sheet 2A3.4 reveals a match (Q.401.9 FOLIO)



Biblia Latina
Strasbourg: Heinrich Eggestein, ca. 1469
Bibliographic record
Link to digitized copy

Nicolas de Hannapes. Auctoritates utriusque Testamenti
Strasbourg: Heinrich Eggestein, 1466
Bibliographic record
Link to digitized copy

The Latin Bible printed by Heinrich Eggestein in Strasbourg ca. 1469 is one of the oldest printed Bibles at the BPL. Like Mentelin’s Latin Bible of 1460 (BPL call no.Q.400a.5 FOLIO), Eggestein’s Bible was set from a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. This particular copy came to the BPL from the personal collection of Theodore Parker, who left all of his books to the library on his death in 1860.

The BPL copy is comprised of the first 319 leaves (Genesis through Psalms). Appended to it is a copy of Nicolas de Hannapes’ Auctoritates utriusque Testamenti, printed by Eggestein ca. 1466. Of particular interest is the fact that a number of extant copies of Eggestein’s ca. 1469 Biblia Latina are found bound together with the Hannapes text, suggesting they may have been originally issued as a set.


(Above) The first page of the Psalms in Eggestein’s Biblia Latina, ca. 1469 (Q.400a.4 FOLIO)



Finally, a note on the use of digital objects like the ones above. These books are scanned and made available at a quality generally suitable for quick consultation and study. In order to facilitate the functionality of its page-turner, Internet Archive crops each page uniformly and compresses each image. This process, while streamlining usability, results in somewhat less than ideally detailed images that rarely show the entirety of a given page. Researchers who wish to work around this issue should always click on the “SINGLE PAGE ORIGINAL JP2.TAR” link on the right side of the IA splash page for each digitized book. This will download all of the uncropped images for the book at a higher resolution than the images in the page-turner.

  1. Needham, Paul. “Gutenberg and the Catholicon Press.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 76, 4th quarter, 1982, pp. 395-456.

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