‘Beautiful’ work turns the pages of the past

Paul Mayne // Western News

The Decretalium libri V. Gregorii Papae cum ordinaria glossa Berhardt, one of the gems of Western Libraries’ collection, dates from 1478, and is known as an incunable book, one that was printed in the late 15th century only a couple of decades after Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press that revolutionized how manuscripts were produced.

At first glance, it looks more like something you might rest your feet on rather than read. But at more than 3-inches thick, and a good 20-inches high and 12-inches wide, the Decretalium libri V. Gregorii Papae cum ordinaria glossa Berhardt is one of the gems of Western Libraries’ collection.

The book, sandwiched between two pieces of carpet to keep it protected, is carried out to a desk for viewing, and you’re best to wear cotton gloves when you turn its pages to ensure you don’t damage it. But for something that’s more than 530 years old, it’s in great shape.

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“The paper is extraordinary. It’s as fresh and white and as strong as the day it was printed,” said John Lutman, who was Western’s special collections librarian before retiring in 2011.

The Decretalium libri is known as an incunable book, one that was printed in the late 15th century only a couple of decades after Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press that revolutionized how manuscripts were produced.

Western has five such books, all religious works, Lutman said. Books before Gutenberg were handwritten and the incunables are like the “Xerox of today” because printers tried to make their works look like a hand-written manuscript, he said. There were spaces for decorations with occasional capital letters printed in red or blue ink.

“It just has a cache about it in terms of its binding, its overall example of the early printing press,” Lutman said of the book’s appeal.

The book was printed by an M. Wenszler at Basil, Switzerland, in 1478. The text of the decretals, which are letters or instructions from the pope, occupies the centre of each page with glosses, or commentary, in smaller type surrounding it. Among the features that make it stand out, according to Lutman, who is now archivist for the Anglican Diocese of Huron, are the painted capital letters and an illuminated portrait of Gregory V on page one. The book has wood covers and is held together with brass bosses (or fastenings) and clasps.

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Though not the oldest book in Western’s collection (there is another from 1474), it’s the most elegant and treasured, Lutman said. These incunables “were greatly valued by the library.”

The Decretalium libri made its way to Western from somewhere in Europe, likely a Roman Catholic country, after the Second World War, but the details aren’t clear. In the years Lutman was at Western, he was not aware of anyone studying the book for scholarly use, but it was popular with students learning about bookbinding and history.

Lutman has no idea what Western paid to acquire the book or what it might be worth now. A search through the website viaLibri.com, suggested by Lutman, didn’t turn up any information. As far as Lutman knows, no other university in Canada would have a copy of this book.

Another interesting volume in the collection is a hours prayer book once owned by a Canon Grendel that was published in 1500 and which Western acquired in 2011. The book was likely produced in Lille in what was then French Flanders or possibly in Bruges.

What makes it interesting is Western has made a digital copy that’s widely available via the Internet Archive. Digitization is an area of growing interest within Archives. As more digitalization and e-books become more the norm, Lutman believes older books, such as this, and the Decretalium libri, will be even more treasured.

“They’re beautiful works of art and, at the same time, they represent such an important development in human communication.”

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