Cataloger’s Corner: Burns Library’s Earliest Printed Book Now Online

Like most books published in the incunable period, this book has had the initial capitals rubricated by hand.

Like most books published in the incunable period, this book has had the initial capitals rubricated by hand, BS1485 .G47 1470 Oversize .

The Burns Library’s earliest printed book, Jean Gerson’s De Spiritualib[us] Nupciis (On Spiritual Marriage), is a book of superlatives, of firsts.

The topic of this short, 80 page quarto-sized book is a commentary on one of the shortest books of the Old Testament, the Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon. The theme of the Song of Songs is the courtship of two lovers, and the two major voices of the poem are that of a man and a woman. Despite rather explicit language – “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth-for your love is more delightful than wine” – the Song of Songs has been typically interpreted as the love of God for Israel, or for Christians as the love of Christ to His Church. Current scholarship has sometimes ascribed, underneath a beautifully sensual and erotic poem, a veiled criticism of Solomon’s rule.

This commentary on the Song of Songs is by Jean Charlier de Gerson (1363-1429), commonly known as Jean Gerson. Mystical theologian, university reformer, poet, man of letters, apologist for Joan of Arc, and from 1395 until his death, Chancellor of the University of Paris, Gerson spent his entire life in the service of the Church both as an educator and as a major force of the Conciliar movement. Gerson’s motivation  in all of his works – he wrote more than 500 works and hundreds of letters – was the desire to write in an increasingly direct and simple language so that the spirit of the law would infuse the reader, not allowing him or her (Gerson specifically wrote many of his essays towards women) to become trapped in an arid scholasticism.

Printers would often leave a tiny letter in the initial space that they had created as a guide to the rubricator, but in this case Sensenschmidt did not do this; the rubricator had to know what letter he should paint.

Printers would often leave a tiny letter in the initial space that they had created as a guide to the rubricator, but in this case Sensenschmidt did not do this; the rubricator had to know what letter he should paint.

The Treatise on the Song of Songs, as current scholarship identifies the De Spiritualibus Nupciis, was Gerson’s last major work. Given the explicitness of the Song of Songs, it is both poignant and ironic that his final work deals with an interpretation of an erotic poem. Gerson took very seriously the canon of sexual morality developed by the Church from the time of Augustine – no sexual intimacy outside of marriage. Throughout his life Gerson sought to delineate clearly and keep separate the spiritual and erotic sides of the human longing of union and intimacy; his impassioned championing of chastity amongst the clergy and his treatise against masturbation are but two examples of this penchant. So there would be no chance he would see the eroticism of the poem as anything but spiritual.

The book itself as physical object is an exquisite example of an incunabulum (incunabula, the plural, means “diapers” in Latin), yet it was made a scant 15 years after the first book came off a printing press. The book itself fails to identify the publisher/printer, of which there were two, but this was not unusual in this very early stage of the printed word. The publishers and printers – in this time period both jobs were often subsumed by the same individual(s) – were Johann Sensenschmidt of Eger and Heinrich Keffer of Mainz.

The end, or colophon of the book, was where early printers left the information we now associate with the title page: place of publication, name(s) of those associated with the book's publication, and a date. But all we find here is that the book was published in Nuremberg in 1470; it is left to bibliographies to tell us who the printers were.

The end, or colophon of the book, was where early printers left the information we now associate with the title page: place of publication, name(s) of those associated with the book’s publication, and a date. But all we find here is that the book was published in Nuremberg in 1470; it is left to bibliographies to tell us who the printers were.

Sensenschmidt probably learned the art of printing in Mainz and also was probably involved in the printing of the 36-line Bible in Bamberg. He established the first printing firm in Nuremberg not later than 1469, as there is extant an undated imprint in the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg which was already rubricated by April 1470. His first dated imprints are from 1470: Franciscus de Retza’s Comestorium Vitiorum and our De Spiritualibus Nupciis.

Sensenschmidt throughout his career lacked the capital to go it alone, so he partnered at various junctures with other investors who also served as labor for the shop. Keffer, his first partner and the co-publisher/printer of the De Spiritualibus Nupciis, had learned the trade by working with none other than Gutenberg himself!

Front cover of De Spiritualibus Nupciis, Burns Room 114 BS1485 .G47 1470.

Front cover of De Spiritualibus Nupciis.

The Burns Library’s copy is in superb, almost mint shape: the paper is white and supple, the text very easy to read, and the rubrication (from the Latin “rubrico,” to color red) of initial capital letters is exquisite.

Exquisitely beautiful, on an ancient, erotically-charged poem, of significant historical importance, the Burns Library’s De Spiritualibus Nupciis is a book well worth your time. You can view the digital surrogate here.  If you would like to look at the actual book, then please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • David Richtmyer, Senior Cataloger, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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