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Editor’s Note: Today’s post by Regan Kladstrup is cross-posted here and at the Penn Rare Books Cataloging blog. Regan and her team do an amazing job with our unique items and I’d encourage everyone to check out their ongoing provenance identification project here.

One week a month is devoted to cataloging incunables, the first books printed after the invention of movable type in the second half of the 15th century. Incunables are a joy to catalog. There is so much to describe: rubrication and other ornamentation, illustrations, binding, paper size, text measurements, etc. Cataloging an incunable is also a great opportunity to do some serious provenance research.

This month, Incunable Week brought some of the best incunables in Penn’s collection to Liz Broadwell’s desk. The standout was H-151 (we use Goff numbers to identify our incunables), a 1474 edition of Hierocles’s commentary on the Golden Verses attributed to Pythagoras. This is a pretty common incunable—lots of institutions have one.

But nobody has our H-151.

Colophon signed by Johannes Cuno (1463-1513)

Penn’s copy was owned by the humanist scholar Johannes Cuno (1463-1513). In a very pleasing hand, he has supplied several pages of missing text and written marginal notes throughout. Cuno has also signed the colophon and included the price he paid for this book.

But what really makes this copy special is Cuno’s transcription of the original Greek text and Latin translation of the Golden Verses inserted on four leaves at the end. Cuno’s Greek and Latin penmanship is beautiful … at first. By the end, his writing is nearly illegible. Why?

Happily, Cuno tells us:

Finis aureo[rum] Carminu[m] Pythagore s[cri]pta veloci[ssi]me i[n] Stuttg[art] accom[o]da[n]te d[omi]no doctore Reuchlin Grece [overwritten: hebraice] lingue sui t[empo]ris ap[u]d G[er]manos [per]iti[ssi]mo 1496 Laur[en]cij.

Bookseller E.P. Goldschmidt translates:

End of the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, written in a great hurry at Stuttgart (from a copy) lent by Dr. Reuchlin, the most expert in his day in the Greek [overwritten: Hebrew] language among all Germans. 1496 on St. Laurence’s day.

Liz likes to imagine the great scholar Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522) breathing down Cuno’s back and saying the 15th century equivalent of, “Dude, get a move on, I’m due to teach a class and I need my book … now!

A Lady’s Book

Another pleasure that came Liz’s way was H-135, Herzmahner, a 1495 anonymous German translation of the Orationes et meditationes de vita Christi by Thomas à Kempis. The book was owned by Anastasia Löwin (recorded elsewhere in volume as “Anastasia Laÿin”) and the rubricator has written her name in several locations. One of these inscriptions is dated 1502, which makes this volume one of the earliest, if not the earliest, example of a printed book owned by a woman in our collection.

Unfortunately, Incunable Week also had a few horrors waiting in the wings.

Meet Horrible Horace

Horrible Horace was twice the victim. First, he fell into the clutches of a conservator who, perhaps, had good intentions. The conservator covered every single leaf with “Pflanzenpapier” (we don’t know the technical term for this in English, but Pflanzenpapier by any other name would be just as ugly). He then attached each leaf to a paper stub before rebinding the book with materials that had probably begun to disintegrate several decades earlier. (The leaves are, of course, bound out of order.)

The second crime committed against this ca. 1471-72 edition of Horace’s Works was by the bookseller who wrote a description for a silk purse rather than for the sow’s ear this book had become. Whoever opened the package when Horace arrived at Penn must have been surprised, for rather than a fine old incunable repaired with what the bookseller described as “grosser Kunst,” there was, instead, Horrible Horace. Poor Horace. He deserved far better than he got.

Ms. Pinard’s Masterpiece

Horrible Horace has a friend. If you judge a book by its cover, this 1474 edition of Postilla super Epistolas et Evangelia by Guillermus Parisiensis seems perfectly ok. If, however, you’d like to read—or catalog—it, you’re in for some long sleepless nights. The book has no foliation, pagination or signature marks, so there is nothing on the printed pages to tell you what order they should be in. This isn’t unusual for the 15th century, and it’s rarely a problem until you hit something like G-644. Once you open the cover and look at the text, it becomes clear all too quickly that the binder, Louise Pinard, should have chosen another line of work. The first leaf in the volume is actually leaf 260. And while some of the first 259 leaves are missing, most of them can be found—with great patience and, now, with the help of a good catalog record—scattered here and there throughout the volume.

I’m looking forward to Incunable Week in September—but I’m going to wait a bit before asking Liz whether she has recovered from her encounter with the talents of Miss Pinard and the Pflanzenpapier Conservator (he was smart enough to remain anonymous). With luck, the first incunable off the shelf will have been owned by another prominent humanist, but I’d bet that Liz would be happy with just about anything … as long as its pages are in order.