Canterbury Cathedral Library’s oldest printed item (Bamberg, 1463)

Der Ackermann aus Böhmen, [Bamberg, 1463].
CCL W/S-12-9.

The Cathedral Library’s oldest printed item is a single leaf printed in a typeface attributed to Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of printing, which had been used to print an edition of the Bible produced in Bamberg in about 1459.

Gutenberg is renowned for producing the very first printed Bible, in Mainz around 1455. This Bible is known as the ‘42-line Bible’ from the number of lines of text on a typical page. The 1459 Bamberg Bible is known as the ‘36-line Bible’ for the same reason. The typefaces for both were designed and used in Mainz by Johann Gutenberg; the 36-line Bible type is thought to be the earliest, in use perhaps as early as 1451.

Title page of the BnF copy

This printed leaf is not from a Latin Bible. In fact it is not printed in Latin but in medieval German. It is identified as coming from the first printed edition of a popular late-medieval work now called Der Ackerman aus Böhmen (‘the Ploughman from Bohemia’), a dialogue between the Ploughman and Death after the death of the ploughman’s young wife. It was printed in Bamberg in about 1463, probably by Albrecht Pfister, a former associate of Johann Gutenberg who seems to have inherited Gutenberg’s 36-line Bible type. This German printed leaf was a very odd thing to turn up in a folder on top of a cupboard in an English cathedral library.

A complete copy of the work had 26 leaves (52 pages). The international Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue database (ISTC ia00039000) records that the Canterbury fragment is leaf 17. More leaves can be found in other libraries, especially in England and the United States: the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (leaf 18), the Lilly Library in Bloomingon, Indiana (leaf 19), the Scheide Library at Princeton University (leaf 20); leaves 21 and 22 are in John Rylands University Library in Manchester (originally belonging to Earl Spencer); leaf 24 is in the University Library at Austin, Texas. Leaves 14, 15, 16 and 23 are in the Staatsbibliothek in Bamberg where the book was printed.

These eleven Ackermann leaves were discovered in an imperfect volume of Pfister imprints owned by the Carmelite convent in Würzburg in 1792. They were sold to a dealer in London who then proceeded to sell them individually to wealthy collectors at some time around the year 1800.

Inscription by the London bookseller James Edwards, c.1800

The Canterbury Cathedral copy has a contemporary inscription documenting this sale: a manuscript note at the foot of the page reads: ‘This is a specimen of the Bamberg type by Pfister and is a leaf of the allegory upon death mention[e]d in Heineken as bound up with the Book of fables in 1464.’ A faint pencil note has the name of the bookseller: ‘James Edwards Pall Mall’.

How did this valuable object find its way to Canterbury? It is likely that these leaves were separated and sold individually shortly after arriving in London at the turn of the eighteenth century. It is clearly not the sort of purchase which the Dean and Chapter were likely to have made, however wealthy they were at that time. Someone in the very early nineteenth century with Canterbury Cathedral connections might have acquired it and then left it to the Library but who? One possibility is Archbishop William Howley, some of whose books were left to his former chaplain Benjamin Harrison, Archdeacon of Maidstone, whose library was presented to the Cathedral Library by his widow in 1887. This is still an unanswered question.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris has a complete copy of the book which has been digitised to be viewed online:,


  • Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue:
  • A discussion of Pfister’s printing career can be found in an online talk by the Gutenberg expert Eric White: ‘Albrecht Pfister and the Earliest Printed Books in German from Bamberg’: The Canterbury Cathedral fragment is discussed at about 60 minutes into the talk.
  • An earlier version of this blog post appeared as ‘Canterbury Cathedral’s oldest printed item: Der Ackerman von Böhmen (1463)’, Picture This, Canterbury Cathedral Library and Archive, 1 January 2014.

What happened to the sackbuts and cornetts at Canterbury Cathedral

In an earlier blog post ‘Cornetts and sackbuts in Canterbury Cathedral at the Restoration‘, I told the story of the re-appointment in 1660 of the four sackbut and cornett players at Canterbury Cathedral after the long break in cathedral music during the Parliamentary Interregnum. Entries for their salaries in the Treasurers’ Books for the 1660s show that the Cathedral’s revived wind band did not last long. As each man died, no successor was appointed. By 1670 they were all dead. The Treasurers’ Books continued to have a heading each year for the ‘Stipendia tibicinum’ (salaries of the wind players) with a budget, but each year the budget was unused. By the eighteenth century, the budget allocation was no longer made and the tibicines were forgotten.

The players may have passed on, but their instruments seem to have survived in the cathedral vestry and can be traced in the Cathedral Inventories1 for a further hundred years. In 1662, the inventory lists

In the vestry
Fowre greate chests with two old carpets lying over the same chests and another small piece of the same.

No mention is made of the contents of the four great chests. However, the inventory for 1689 records

In the Vestry
fiue greate chests with two old carpetts lying on two of them, in one of them three small viols in another two sackbuts and three cornetts.

The inventory of 1735 suggests that these instruments were still there:

In the Vestry
Some old musical instruments.

This is confirmed in 1752:

In the Vestry
Two large chests. In one of these chests are contain’d only 2 brass sackbuts, not us’d for a great number of years past, the body of an old bass viol without strings, & such like trumpery.

One wonders whether ‘such like trumpery’ suggests that the cornetts also survived in 1752. The subsequent fate of these instruments remains unclear.

  1. The Canterbury Cathedral pre-1800 inventories can be consulted in the Cathedral Archives at reference ‘CCA DCc-inventories.
    They have been published in J Wickham Legg and W. H. St. John Hope, Inventories of Christchurch Canterbury, Westminster: 1902.

An earlier version of this blog appeared in Southern Early Music Forum Newsletter, March 2020, p. 5.

Moving house in the eighteenth century

CCA U3-274/A/9
(sold by Robert Vincent, London, c. 1705)

Thinking of moving to a different town? No problem if you were well off. If you were down on your luck, the Poor Relief Act of 1662 specified that the parish where you lived would have to support you out of the rates, so the place you were trying to move to might not want you. A further Act of 1692 introduced a system of Settlement Certificates. If you wanted to leave your parish, the church wardens could issue a Settlement Certificate recognising you as a settled inhabitant. The certificate was authenticated by two Justices of the Peace and then handed over to your new parish to notify it that if you fell on hard times there, your original settled parish accepted a liability to support you.

Continue reading “Moving house in the eighteenth century”

Three Canterbury shopkeepers in 1792

In the year 1792, three Canterbury shopkeepers had advertising bills printed announcing the goods they were offering for sale: a draper, a grocer, and a soap merchant. The survival of printed ephemera of this sort is very patchy. Just think of all the advertising leaflets which you throw away after they drop through your letterbox, instead of filing them for future reference! These three items were previously unknown apart from a brief entry on the Canterbury Cathedral Archives catalogue. They have now been recorded on the British Library’s English Short-Title Catalogue (ESTC) of English printing up to the year 1800 which has very little of this sort of material.

Continue reading “Three Canterbury shopkeepers in 1792”

An attempt to acquire a book for Canterbury Cathedral Library in 1628

In 1628 Dr Isaac Bargrave, Dean of Canterbury since 1625, proposed to Chapter that the Cathedral’s Library needed reviving. At the June meeting of Chapter, an order was approved for this purpose :

That every man should do his endeavour to refurnish the ancient library of the said church. And that a book of velume should be provided wherein the names of the Benefactors should be registered, and that the two upper most deskes should be instantly fitted for the receipt of such books as shall be first given to the encouragement of so good a work.

(Chapter Acts, CCA DCc-CA/4: 1608–1628, fol. 304v;
transcription from Woodruff and Danks, Memorials of the Cathedral and Priory of Christ in Canterbury, London: 1912, p. 388)

Continue reading “An attempt to acquire a book for Canterbury Cathedral Library in 1628”

Canterbury Cathedral Library’s five copies of the 1763 Baskerville Bible

File:John Baskerville (1706–1775) by James Millar.jpeg
John Baskerville

In 1758 John Baskerville, a Birmingham printer and businessman, decided to launch a project to print a large folio Bible, of the sort needed for lecterns in churches, using a new typeface which he had designed. This new type had caused a great stir in 1757 when he used it to print an edition of the poems of Virgil on expensive wove paper.

Continue reading “Canterbury Cathedral Library’s five copies of the 1763 Baskerville Bible”

Printed books surviving from Canterbury medieval libraries

By the year 1500, the printing industry was over forty years old and had spread to all the major centres of Europe. Many institutional libraries were starting to add printed books to their collections and were even discarding manuscript copies from their shelves in favour of the new ‘modern’ products of the printing press. It is not easy to document this process from surviving books as many must survive without any indication of their original owner, whether personal or institutional. It is still the case that relatively few British libraries have fully researched and made available the provenances of items in their collections, though this situation is slowly improving.

Continue reading “Printed books surviving from Canterbury medieval libraries”

A military guard for the Canterbury Playhouse in 1744

While looking for something else in the Cathedral Treasurer’s Book for 1743/44 (CCA-DCc-TB/79), I came across the following entry on page 68:

Expensa incerta
Nov 9   Given to the Soldiers who guarded the Play-house Nov: 5. to keep off the Mob from rushing on the Dean & Prebs whilst the Kings Scholars were acting before them the Tragedy of Cato.                                                              [£] – 10-6 Continue reading “A military guard for the Canterbury Playhouse in 1744”

The dung heap in St George’s Lane

Wheels_1In 2005 an old friend, the late Kenneth Pinnock, published a small autobiographical booklet called Wheels: A Boy in Canterbury in the 1920s. He described the premises of his father’s horse-drawn haulage, taxi and bus business in St George’s Lane with its stable block in the Mews:

an acre or thereabouts of yards, stables and garages stretching from the main entrance on Watling Street to the double doors at the rear which faced down St George’s Lane. Adjoining this rear entrance there was a collection of tarred timber buildings in Gravel Walk which seemed to have come straight out of some farmyard.
(Kenneth Pinnock, Wheels, 2005, p. 4.)

Continue reading “The dung heap in St George’s Lane”

Did Canterbury Cathedral Library chain its books in the seventeenth century?

The seventeenth-century library
(D. Stoker)

The Treasurer’s Book for 1676/1677 (CCA DCc/TB-13) has several records of payments relating to the Chapter Library which had been newly built ten or twelve years earlier. The half-yearly stipend for Arthur Kay the Library Keeper is recorded as £2–10–0 and that of his deputy John Sargenson as £1–0–0 (p. 61). Under the heading Expensae necessariae incertae (Necessary miscellaneous expenses, p. 77), Dr Peter Du Moulin, the Treasurer for that year, records for 19 January 1677 the payment of five shillings ‘For halfe yeares wages to ye woman that cleanseth ye Library’ together with a further two shillings ‘For mops & brooms &c for the Library’. There then follows a similar small payment of two shillings ‘For taking off the chains from the books’. Continue reading “Did Canterbury Cathedral Library chain its books in the seventeenth century?”