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.
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.
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: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k105089q.r=ark%3A12148bpt6k105089q,
- Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/istc/
- 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’: https://youtu.be/iuCl08qSxDo. 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.