Rare Book Highlights: the oldest book

Large books sits in an open box with sides raised at angles to support the book when it is opened.

Quaestiones de veritate sitting in its cradle box specially designed by a former intern with the library’s Preservation Department.

Saint Thomas Aquinas. Quaestiones de veritate. Colonie: Johann Koelhoeff de Lubeck, 1475. Call number: XI 1475 T36.

It is certainly not the oldest book in the world, but it is the oldest book at Iowa State University Library. This copy of St. Thomas Aquinas‘s work, known in English as Disputed Questions on Truth and originally written in the 13th century, was printed by Johann Koelhoeff de Lubeck in 1475 in Cologne, Germany.  It is what is referred to as an incunabulum, or “incunable,” a book printed in Europe before the year 1501. “Incunabula” is a Latin word that translates to “swaddling clothes,” and it refers to books from “the cradle of printing” period–the first 50 years of printing following Gutenberg‘s invention of moveable type and the printing press. These are the first European books that were made in a mechanized fashion, after centuries of scribes in monasteries painstakingly copying books by hand.

With its designation as ISU’s Oldest Book, this Aquinas sees a lot of use. We trot it out for visiting VIPs getting a tour of the library. We show it to alumni, and occasionally to eager groups of students who heard something about a really old book. And this book is worth seeing. Not only because it is “really old,” but because it demonstrates a lot about how early books were made.

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The cover shows signs of being quite ornamental. Leather was stretched over wooden boards, and the leather was stamped with hot metal tools. These tools created diamond patterns and stamps of what looks like a deer, birds, fleur de lis, and other floral and geometric shapes. There are holes in four corners and in the center that likely once held bosses (click here for another blog post featuring bosses), and there are signs of clasps at the edges of the front and back covers.

Shows an open book. On the left side is a sheet with two columns of handwritten text.

Manuscript leaf used to attach the covers to the book.

Opening up the book, there are more interesting things to see. Above, you can see a manuscript leaf (a page that has been written by hand) that had been used as a front endpaper covering the wooden board of the cover. It was a common practice for early bookbinders to use manuscript waste or print waste in this way. Here is a close-up view of the manuscript writing:

Close up of the manuscript inside the front cover of the book.

Close up of the manuscript inside the front cover of the book.

The inside back cover is similar, but here, a strip of the paper has been torn away to reveal the cords laced in the board. The pages of a book are sewn onto a series of cords. These cords are then attached to the boards, as can be seen below. On the spine, you can see evidence of the cords hidden underneath the leather in what are known as raised bands.

Looking into the pages of the text itself, we see that the pages of the printed text look very similar to the manuscript pages lining the boards. In both the  manuscript and printed leaves, the page layout is very similar with two columns of text and wide margins that was commonly used for medieval manuscripts. The typeface was designed to resemble the form of letters in medieval scripts.

Two facing pages of a book. Each page has two columns of text. There are large red initial capital letters and other red markings added to the text by pen.

Inside pages of Quaestiones de veritate.

What also stands out are the red initial capital letters at the beginning of sections of the text. These features were also brought into printing from the medieval manuscript tradition. These initials could be decorated in various ways, and could sometimes contain elaborate figures and scenes. Here they are simple red letter forms, but I find them no less appealing for their simplicity.

The pages also contain numerous other red markings in the text. This is referred to as rubrication and is usually used to indicate the end of one section of text and the beginning of another, and sometimes to announce the subject of the section or its purpose. The word “rubrication” comes from the Latin rubrico, meaning “to color red.” A completed text was given to a special scribe known as a rubricator who would add the additional red markings. Here we see this early printed work following a similar process.

Thanks for coming on this tour of our oldest book in the collection. Now you can see why it gets so much attention!

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