Incunabula in the Vassar College Library

by Ronald D. Patkus




D uring the later Middle Ages, the demand for books in Europe steadily increased.  The rise of the universities in the 12th and 13th centuries was one important factor in this development, and another was the appearance in the late 13th century of a literate bourgeois class, interested not only in works on professional subjects, but also romances, moral treatises, and translations.  New methods of book production evolved in an attempt to supply the growing needs of readers; fewer manuscripts were produced in monasteries, for instance, and more by professional scribes.  Nevertheless books were still produced by hand.    Many interesting and sometimes beautiful works were made in this fashion, but scribes, students, and others must have desired a more expedient means of making books.[1] 


By the middle decades of the 15th century, the method of book production had changed dramatically. A number of early innovators experimented with movable type, in an attempt to produce books more quickly.  Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, however, has traditionally been identified as the first person in Western Europe to print a book using movable type.  Reflecting the concerns of his time, he printed first a Bible, sometime around 1455.[2]  From these beginnings along the Rhine printing spread to other towns in Germany, then to Italy, France, and eventually other parts of Europe.  Between 1455 and 1501, historians estimate that approximately 30,000 editions of books were printed in Europe, totaling around 20 million copies.[3]  These first books, today known as incunabula, were thus produced in great numbers, testifying to printing's influence on society and culture.[4] 


Although a relatively large number of books was printed before 1501, incunabula cannot be considered commonplace.  The passage of time alone dictates that circumstances seen and unforeseen will contribute to the rarity of any material object.  Incunabula are no exception, and today they are prized possessions, as evidenced by the prices listed in rare book catalogs and elsewhere.  Still, despite the rarity of incunabula, we are fortunate in that a significant number of the first printed books survive, and actually are available for us to see and study.  We are further aided by scholarly efforts to prepare comprehensive lists of incunabula.[5] 


Where exactly can we find examples?  Since the earliest printed books first appeared in Europe, it is no surprise that today most of them reside in European institutions, such as universities and museums.  In addition, a portion of the extant incunabula have made their way to American libraries and institutions.  Several publications have been produced which seek to list all of the incunabula in particular geographic areas, such as North America, or in particular institutions, such as the British Museum, or Harvard University.[6]   At the same time we must recognize that important examples of incunabula are owned outside of the major European and American institutions: by smaller institutions in Europe and America; by institutions outside of these areas; and indeed by book dealers and private collectors around the world.


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A s one of this country's premier liberal arts colleges, Vassar has long been interested in collecting good books and developing a strong library.  There has also been a noticeable pedagogical concern for primary sources on the part of the faculty since the early years of college.  During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, History professor Lucy Maynard Salmon was particularly active in using primary sources in the classroom.  Her pioneering approaches have served as inspiration for succeeding generations of Vassar faculty.  Both of these trends, a concern for the library and an interest in primary sources, have led to a desire for rare books, and the library has developed some remarkable holdings in this area.  Today there are more than twenty thousand rare books in the library, relating to a variety of topics, and documenting important literary and historical ideas. 


Among the rare books is a collection of incunabula, made up of both books and individual leaves, or pages, from books.  The collection has variety, and includes some of the most significant and beautiful books printed during the fifteenth century.  Of course in terms of breadth and depth, the incunabula holdings at Vassar cannot compare with those at larger universities.  Still, these books form a wonderfully representative collection that can be enjoyed and studied by students, faculty, and others.


Vassar's collection of incunabula has grown slowly but steadily since the 19th century.  Appropriately enough, it appears that Matthew Vassar himself purchased the first incunable for the college.  The founder acquired a book of hours printed in Paris by Philippe Pigouchet from trustee Rev. Elias Magoon, who was a famous collector of art.[7]  By 1917, the college had three incunabula: in addition to the Pigouchet hours; it had two volumes of a Bible with commentary by Nicholas de Lyra, and a Lives of the Fathers, often attributed to St. Jerome.[8]  By  1936, the college had fourteen incunabula; at this point there existed in the collection a predominance of books printed in Germany.[9]  The holdings continued to grow during the remainder of the 20th century, and many examples of early printing in Italy, especially Venice, were added.  In 1977, when the library dedicated its Francis Fitz Randolph Rare Book Room, it was recorded that Vassar maintained thirty-six books printed before 1501, as well as ìnearly one hundred leavesî printed before that date.[10] At present, the college holds forty-two books and ninety-eight leaves.[11]


The growth of the incunabula collection would not have occurred without the generosity of donors.  Apart from Matthew Vassar, the earliest donor was Edith Deane of the class of 1896, who gave to the college one volume of the Bible with commentary by Nicholas de Lyra, as well as the Lives of the Fathers, or Vitae patrum.  Over the course of the twentieth century, alumnae were particularly helpful in the development of the collection.  Individual graduates gave incunabula, and several class library funds supported other acquisitions.  In addition, faculty, staff, and trustees gave fifteenth century books to the library.  Of special note was the donation of eight incunabula, including several examples printed in Venice, by Mary Hill Randolph, VC '45-4.  Francis Fitz Randolph, a trustee of the college after whom the library's rare book room is named, gave an interesting collection of leaves from books printed before 1501.[12]


It is possible to think about Vassar's collection of incunabula from several perspectives.  Let us first consider the chronological distribution of the books.  In terms of chronological boundaries, our earliest incunable dates from 1471 and the latest from 1501.  If we divide the period from 1455 to 1501 by decade, we can see that we have no examples from the 1450s or 1460s, 9 from the 1470s, 15 from the 1480s, and 18 from the 1490s and up to 1501.  Our collection therefore provides fairly good representation of the period after 1470, but unfortunately it offers nothing before that.  The chronological representation of the period from 1470 to 1501 is weighted toward the later decades; there are twice as many examples after 1490 as the period before 1480.  Still, to a certain extent, the collection allows one the opportunity to study the production of incunabula over a period of time, and this is important. 


Apart from the chronological distribution of the books, we can also consider their geographical distribution.   Here we see that Italy (I will use modern names of particular regions) is the most highly represented area, 20 examples having been printed there.  Germany is nearly equal, with 18 examples.  There are 3 examples from Switzerland and 1 from France.  If we further divide these areas, we can note that nearly all of the Italian examples (19 of 20) derive from Venice, the only other example coming from Modena.  Within Germany there is more variety, examples having been printed in Nuremberg, Strassburg (which we will consider German), Augsburg, Mainz, Heidelberg, and Cologne.  Of these, 7 titles were printed in Nuremberg, and 7 in Strassburg.  Among the other regions, we have examples from Paris and Basle.  Within these geographical categories we see the work of a variety of printers.  This is especially true of our examples from Venice.  Our most highly represented printer is the well-known and successful Anton Koberger of Nuremberg; 7 of our books were made at his press.  We also have 6 examples from Georg Husner of Strassburg, another famous printer.  Geographically, then, our collection reflects the two major forces in early printing, Germany and Italy, but we have few examples from other areas of Western Europe. 


If viewed linguistically we see that nearly all of Vassar's incunabula were printed in Latin, regardless of place of printing.  This reflects the situation generally, since more than three-fourths of incunabula are thought to have been printed in Latin.[13]  We are fortunate, however, to possess several books in German, several in Italian, and one with French in addition to Latin.  We thus have an indication of the appearance of vernacular languages in printed books, even though for many years to come Latin would serve as the principle language in scholarly circles.


What about the thematic distribution of the books, that is, what about the themes of the texts, and the authors who were published?    First we must note that, like most of the books printed in the 15th century, many of our incunables are religious in nature.  We have religious texts, including five Latin Bibles; church service books such as missals, a processional, and a book of hours; collections of sermons; devotional works and works of popular piety such as the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and Voragine's The Golden Legend; and works of the fathers of the church and other theologians, including Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, Bonaventure, and Jerome.  Not all of our incunabula, however, are of a strictly religious nature; some deal more with secular themes.  We have, for instance, a number of literary and historical works from various periods including ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.  Caesar, Horace, Ovid, Quintilian, Dante, Boccaccio, and others are represented.  Moreover, the comparatively small output of ìscientificî titles produced in the 15th century is represented in the Vassar collection by Anglicus Bartholomaeus' De proprietatibus rerum.


It is interesting to note that among these books we have several of the most popular works of the 15th century.  The presence of five Bibles within our modest collection reflects the fact that it was in great demand during this period.  For centuries the most printed title apart from the Bible was Kempis' Imitation of Christ.  The most popular work of the church fathers in the age of incunabula was probably Augustine's City of God, which Vassar has in an Italian edition of 1483.  The Golden Legend had over 100 editions, most in Latin; ours is one of 2 German editions.    Among classical writers Ovid was especially popular; we have a set of his works produced in Venice.  Within the category of Renaissance writers Dante and Boccaccio were read frequently, and we are pleased to have works of each of these men, including the Divine Comedy.  To a certain extent, then, the collection is reflective of both printing trends and popular taste.[14]


Vassar's incunabula can also be appreciated from the perspective of art.  It is remarkable that the college possesses not one but two editions of Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, one in Latin and one in German.  Printed by Anton Koberger, this book is noteworthy for many reasons, but especially for its wonderful woodcut illustrations, many will recognize views of cities and historical figures, by Michael Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, and possibly the young Albrecht Durer.[15]    Another book known for its beautiful artwork is the Livre d'heures printed by Philippe Pigouchet in Paris in 1498.  Featuring page after page of intricate illustrations, ornate borders, and red, blue, and gold illuminations, this book of hours recalls the strong French tradition of manuscript production.  Even more impressive in terms of illumination is one of our Missals, which includes large illuminated initials in red and blue.  Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that often the type used in early printed books alone possesses immense artistic quality.  The visual elegance of a printed page is apparent in works produced by printers like the Frenchman Nicholas Jenson, who for many years worked in Venice.  Vassar's Works of Caesar was printed by Jenson early on, in 1471.[16]


In addition to artistic qualities, we can consider other physical features.  Given their status as artifacts of a time far removed from our own, we should not hesitate to ask ourselves what these incunables are like as material objects.  Do their physical characteristics tell us something about the history of books, and the history of particular books?  Even a quick glance at our examples confirms that this is so.  We can begin by noticing what holds the text together, that is, the bindings.  Several of our books still have parts of their original binding, wooden boards, skin covers, manuscript attachments, sewing, thus allowing us to view how a book was put together in the 15th century.  We can also see other features of a binding, such as bosses and clasps, as in our 1485 Bible.   Within the covers of a number of our books one can find bookplates or sometimes provenance notes, which provide information about who may have owned and read a particular work.  On the pages of books such as our Jerome, Ovid, and Quintilian, not to mention others, are various manuscript annotations, which tell us something about contemporary reading habits.   Even such seemingly unimportant features as worming, staining, and tearing, found within several of our books, can tell us about a book's history as well as the hazards of book preservation.[17]   


In sum, we can see that, especially for its size, Vassar's incunabula collection has a number of interesting and valuable features.  It possesses some chronological, geographic, linguistic, and thematic diversity, and a few real high points of the period of incunabula are present. Of course it could benefit from additions in several areas.  It would be useful, for instance, to have a wider chronological distribution of titles, i.e. more examples of works printed before 1480, or even 1470.  We could also use more books printed outside Italy and Germany; examples from England, Spain, Portugal, or the Netherlands would fill existing gaps.  Since Vassar's Italian examples are primarily Venetian, titles from other towns in that area would be welcome. 


So far this discussion of Vassar's incunabula has focused on our books, and has not considered the individual leaves.  Before closing this section, however, we should take care to note the significance of the nearly one hundred leaves in our collection.  Though not complete books, these items are treasures too, and they can be especially helpful in an instructional setting.  We are fortunate in that we have leaves spanning the entire period of incunabula, from 1454/55 to 1501.  Our geographical coverage is greatly expanded as a result of the leaves; not only do we have leaves from a variety of German and Italian towns and cities, but also from places like England, France, the Netherlands, and even Czechoslovakia.  What is more, several of the leaves are taken from books that are widely regarded as some of the most significant and artistically beautiful of all time.  These include five leaves of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book ever printed; a leaf from Nicholas of Lyra's Postillae perpetuae, printed in Rome by Sweynheim and Pannartz and featuring the antiqua-gotico typeface (a combination of northern and southern styles); and a leaf from Francisco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, printed by Aldus Manutius in 1499.  Clearly the leaves expand the collection in terms of both breadth and depth, allowing us to see even more of the achievement and variety of the first printed books. 



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C ollecting and preserving rare books are important parts of the mission of Vassar College Libraries.  In addition, librarians are cognizant of the need to make these resources available to students, faculty, staff, alumnae/I and external constituencies.  Over the years incunabula have been used in numerous classes and have been made available for a variety of research projects.  Librarians have reached out further to the local community by mounting a number of exhibits dealing with incunabula either in whole or in part.[18]  The incunabula exhibit mounted in the Spring of 2003 is therefore part of a tradition and represents the most recent effort to share examples of early printing with others.  It concentrates entirely on the college's own examples of incunabula, apparently for the first time since 1936.[19]


Besides exhibits, the libraries in the past have published two catalogs listing Vassar's incunabula, one in 1917 and the other in 1977.[20]  The present publication, ìIncunabula at Vassar,î updates the 1977 catalog in several ways.   It offers an up-to-date listing of all of our books printed before 1501, which is important, since several titles have been added in recent decades.  Moreover, this short title catalog listing includes more information than was previously published; of special interest are notes on the unique physical aspects of Vassar's incunabula.[21]  The present catalog also for the first time describes all of our leaves of incunabula, thus showing the full extent and depth of our holdings in this area.  The catalog provides context to our collection of the first printed books through this essay and the following one by Professor Benjamin G. Kohl.  Finally, and again for the first time, it includes color illustrations in an attempt to convey more vividly some of the original details of our examples.  


Both the exhibit and this catalog were produced as part of Vassar College Libraries' yearlong program called ìTransformations of the Text.î  ìTransformations of the Textî has presented a number of lectures dealing with various aspects of the history of texts.  These lectures have investigated the making of artist's books, digital texts, and the use of texts in the performance of music.  The exhibit and catalog are made available on the occasion of the final event in our series, which will feature a new lecture and a discussion of issues raised there and in previous lectures.[22]  Incunabula demonstrate the shift from manuscript production to printed works, which some regard as the most important cultural change prior to the appearance of digital technologies.  Their presentation here and in the current exhibit thus forms an appropriate accompaniment to ìTransformations.î  It is our hope that those who read this catalog and who see the exhibit will enjoy learning about incunabula in general and Vassar's holdings in particular; moreover, we trust that some will be moved to pursue further study of the exciting world of early books and printing.



[1] For a review of manuscripts on the eve of printing see Marcel Thomas, ìManuscripts,î in Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: the Impact of Printing, 1450-1800.  (London: NLB, 1976).  For a recent essay on the transition from manuscript to print, see Paul Needham's introduction to Adventure and Art: the First One Hundred Years of Printing: An Exhibition of Books, Woodcuts, and Illustrated Leaves Printed between 1455 and 1555, curated by Barbara A Shailor, Leonard Hansen, and Michael Joseph; edited by Paul Needham and Michael Joseph. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Library, 1999).

[2] For Gutenberg's life and work, see Albert Kapr, Johann Gutenberg: the Man and His Invention; translated from the German by Douglas Martin. (Aldershot [England]; Brookfield, Vt.: Scolar Press, 1996).

[3] The Coming of the Book, 248.  For a summary treatment of the first decades of printing, see the opening chapters of Colin Clair, A History of European Printing.  (London: Academic Press, 1976).

[4] Elizabeth Eisenstein's seminal work The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge [Eng]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979) discusses this influence in detail.

[5] An early effort is Ludwig Hain, Repertorium Bibliographicum.  (Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta, 1826-1838).  W.A. Copinger published a supplement to Hain's work titled Supplement to Hain's Repertorium bibliographicum.  (London: H. Sotheran and Co., 1895-1902).  A more recent and more comprehensive effort to list all books printed before 1501 is the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (Leipzig, K.W. Hiersemann, 1925-), though this alphabetically-arranged work has only reached the letter ìH.î

[6] Frederick Richmond Goff, Incunabula in American Libraries.  (New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1964);  Catalogue of books printed in the XVth century now in the British Museum. (London: Printed by order of the Trustees; sold at the British Museum, 1908-); James Walsh, A Catalogue of the Fifteenth-century Printed Books in the Harvard University Library.  (Binghamton, N.Y. : Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1991-).

[7] A List of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Autographs in Vassar College Library with Notes by Mary M. Shaver (Poughkeepsie, NY: [n.p.], 1917) mentions the connection between Matthew Vassar and the Pigouchet Hours.  For further discussion of the founder's purchase of the Magoon collection, see Edward R. Linner, Vassar: the Remarkable Growth of a Man and His College, 1855-1865 edited by Elizabeth A Daniels (Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1984), 144-172.

[8] A List of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Autographs, 19-20.

[9] Violet Barbour, ìOld Printing Shown in Vassar Library,î Vassar Miscellany News, April 22, 1936.

[10] A Checklist of Western Mediaeval Manuscripts and Incunabula in the Vassar College Library (Poughkeepsie, NY: The Library, 1977).

[11] For a current listing of Vassar's incunabula, see Julie Kemper's checklist in this volume.

[12] See A Checklist for an index of donors up to 1977.

[13] The Coming of the Book, 249.

[14] The popularity of various incunabula is discussed in Ibid., 249-258.

[15]  See Hartmann Schedel, Chronicle of the World: the Complete and Annotated Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493; introduction and appendix by Stephan Fussel. (Koln : New York: Taschen, 2001).

[16] For more on Jenson, see Martin Lowry, Nicholas Jenson and the Rise of Venetian Publishing in Renaissance Europe.  (Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA : B. Blackwell, 1991).

[17] A dated but still in many ways useful discussion of the physical aspects of incunabula is given in Konrad Haebler, The Study of Incunabula. Translated from the German by Lucy Eugenia Osborne; with a foreword by Alfred W. Pollard (New York: The Grolier Club, 1933).

[18] According to library files, exhibits devoted exclusively to the topic of incunabula were mounted in 1936, 1957, and 1972. 

[19] The 1936 exhibit appears to have been made up of Vassar's examples only, while later exhibits dealt with incunabula in general and included a number of facsimiles. The checklist of incunabula held by Vassar, which appears in this catalog, notes which items form the current exhibit.

[20] Each of the catalogs have already been mentioned, namely A List of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Autographs, and A Checklist.

[21] Full catalog entries have been entered into Vassar's online catalog.

[22] Shirley Jones, a Welsh maker of artist's books, gave the first lecture.  Next followed Kevin Kiernan, head of the Electronic Beowulf project.  In the early spring of 2003 Benjamin Bagby will be on campus to discuss the musical presentation of ìBeowulfî and other medieval texts.  In April, Jerome McGann, originator of the Rossetti Archive, will lecture here.