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The University of London’s oldest printed book turns 550

Medieval

Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s curator of rare books and university art, examines Pablo de Santa Maria’s Scrutinium Scripturarum ([Incunabula] 64), a source material in medieval and Renaissance studies and an example of the transition from manuscript to print.

 Not that the publication is dated; indeed, all information about its production has been extrapolated from external sources. However, an early rubricator has noted the date, 1470, in the copy at Eichstätt University Library.

The subject matter of the book is its least appealing element. The author – Paulus de Sancta Maria, Pablo de Cartagena, Pablo de Burgos – was born in Burgos in about 1352 as Solomon ha-Levi, of Jewish descent. He became the chief rabbi of Burgos, home to one of Castile’s three leading Jewish communities. Not only was he an eminent and formidable advocate of Judaism, but he was respected highly enough in the most aristocratic circles for King Juan I to select him to be a Castilian hostage in England in 1388.

However, pogroms broke out in Burgos in 1391, and to avoid persecution, Pablo converted formally to Christianity, drawing some Jews along with him. Others accused him bitterly of perfidiousness. Professionally and socially, Pablo succeeded as spectacularly as he had done before, becoming archdeacon of Treviño (1398), bishop of Cartagena and the Pope’s ambassador to the Castilian court (1403), and finally bishop of Burgos (1415). As a close friend of King Enrique III of Castile, he exerted influence at the royal court. Unfortunately, in his ardour to bring about mass Jewish conversions he used his position to back laws to persecute and impoverish Jews. Scrutinium Scripturarum is a vicious anti-Jewish diatribe.

Scrutinium Scripturarum is Pablo’s second book, following Additiones to Nicholas of Lyra’s biblical commentary, finished in 1429 and his major work. He completed it in 1434, a year before he died, and it was published (before the Additiones) at the instigation of Abbot Ulrich IV Dürner of the Benedictine monastery at Plankstetten. Its publication history reveals that during its first decade it was popular: Mentelin reissued it in about 1474, and other editions appeared in Rome (1471), Mantua (1475) and Mainz (1478). It limped into the 16th century with two editions from the first decade of the century and one from the last before fading into oblivion.

The major interest of the book lies in its place within the history of printing. The printer, Johann Mentelin (c.1410–1478), was the first printer and bookseller at Strasbourg and one of the first in Europe. Although the first book to bear his name was not printed until 1465 (Augustine’s De arte praedicandi), rubrication and type evidence shows that he was printing by 1460/1461, and Johannes Philippus de Ligmanine recorded him as printing as early as 1458.

He was a successful businessperson and a skilful typographer. Mentelin issued about 40 known titles, among which philosophical and religious works predominate. His oldest known printed work is a Latin Bible (1460). Highlights are the first full printed German Bible (the basis for 13 further pre-Reformation editions) and the first edition of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s courtly grail romance Parzival (1477).

The year 1470 probably saw the appearance alongside Scrutinium Scripturarum of exclusively classical works: Augustine’s Confessions, Virgil’s Opera, Terence’s Comoediae, and the Facta et Dicta Memorabilia of Valerius Maximus, all conservative, safe sellers. Johann Schott (1477-c.1548), one of Strasbourg’s leading sixteenth-century printers and the printer of three books held by Senate House Library, was Mentelin’s grandson.

Medieval

Scrutinium Scripturarum is one of the 13 incunabula which passed to Senate House Library from the London Institution in 1918. Mentelin rarely printed capital letters, instead leaving spaces for them to be added in manuscript, and this book is no exception. In this copy, the initial capital in blue and red with red and gold penwork as shown (left). Paragraph marks and later capitals have been supplied alternately in blue and red. Further manuscript intervention in red to facilitate navigation is present in the form of initial strokes and the underlining of headings.

The book had previously belonged to the Augustinian canons regular in Cologne: did the addition sometimes of ‘querit’ in red stem from one of them? The University of London’s contribution to the book was the 20th-century binding of pigskin and wooden boards with two metal clasps in a so-called ‘antique style’ redolent of the 15th century, in celebration of the book’s age. In an era which promotes material culture and object-based teaching, the item serves as a source material in mediaeval and renaissance studies and an example of the transition from manuscript to print.

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