‘The printer of the R-bizarre’

A leaf from Sophologium by Jacobus Magnus, printed by Adolf Rusch in Strasbourg in 1470 (278 x 208 mm)

 Could Rusch’s curious R actually be a monogram derived from his initials A R.?

For many years it was known that another printer started work in Strasbourg soon after Mentelin set up his press, but since none of his books carried his name it was not possible to say who he was. One of the fonts used by the unnamed printer included an unusual form of the uppercase ‘R’. He was therefore known simply as the ‘R-printer’ or more poetically as ‘The Printer of the R-Bizarre’. An example of this curious R appears in the 11th line of text on the verso of this leaf, and enlarged here.

Later detective-work finally identified the printer as Adolf Rusch, who seems to have worked with Mentelin and also independently, married Mentelin’s daughter Salome, and took over the business when her father died.

Rusch first used the font with the R-bizarre in 1464 and was still using it in 1470 when this leaf was printed. What is remarkable is not the odd ‘R’, but the extent to which the font has moved away from the gothic style towards what is now called ‘roman’ – the sort in almost universal use for printed books today. Rusch’s was the first roman font used in Germany and possibly the first used anywhere, though that is a matter for debate – some of the early romans were more roman than others.

As the name implies, roman fonts are based on styles believed to have been used in ancient Rome. This is certainly true for the upper case letters, as is shown by a comparison of Rusch’s capitals with those inscribed on Trajan’s column in Rome in the second century AD. Lower case roman letters, also known as ‘Antika’, are derived from a style of writing standardised under the Emperor Charlemagne in the early ninth century and known as ‘Carolingian minuscule’.

The impetus for using roman fonts came from humanists – scholars, particularly in northern Italy, bent on seeking out works originating in the classical world. It made sense to republish these in a form that resembled the text of the manuscripts in which they had been rediscovered, namely Carolingian minuscule, recreated in print as roman.

Rusch’s uppercase initials (top row) were based on inscribed letters such as those on Trajan’s column in Rome (bottom row).

One such republishing venture was the Sophologium from which this leaf comes. Its compiler, around the year 1400, was a member of the Order of Augustinian Hermits, Jacques LeGrand, or in Latin, Jacobus Magnus, professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Padua. In Sophologium (literally ‘wisdom-study’) Magnus gathered together extracts from ancient and mediaeval writers to form a guide to moral behaviour. Rusch’s version was the first printed edition of Sophologium, but many others followed. William Caxton translated parts of it into English and published them as The Book of Good Manners in 1487.

The first owner of the copy of Sophologium from which this leaf comes did not trouble, or could not afford, to have it rubricated. The pages remain as they left the press, without headings, initial capitals or other marks to relieve the monotony. And without numbered pages the book could have no index or contents page, though this one did carry a list of its chapters at the start. A later owner has remedied these omissions by adding a folio number to the recto page and heading it ‘Lib 3us Tract 2us Cap 10’ (Chapter 10 of Tract 2 of Book 3).

On this leaf Magnus quotes St Paul’s famous injunction ‘Husbands, love your wives’, (‘Viri diligite uxores vestras’) near the foot of the recto page, while overleaf he mentions Pythagoras, Socrates and Seneca, among other classical worthies.