From Strasbourg's first printer

A leaf from Speculum historiale (Mirror of history) by Vincentius Bellovacensis (Vincent of Beauvais), printed by Johann Mentelin in Strasbourg in 1473 (435 x 305 mm)

Strasbourg is a hundred miles up the Rhine from Mainz. The first press was set up there by Johann Mentelin just five or six years after Gutenberg published his Bible. Mentelin was a legal official employed by the Bishop of Strasbourg before he set up his press. Whether or not he learned the art in Mainz is not known, but if not he must have employed someone who did – or maybe, since Gutenberg had lived in Strasbourg while developing the techniques of printing, there were already workmen in the city with relevant expertise. The first book Mentelin printed in Strasbourg was a Latin Bible, somewhat less unwieldy than Gutenberg’s. Equally noteworthy is his German Bible, published by 1466 and the first printed edition of the Bible that was in any other language than Latin. According to S.H. Steinberg in Five Hundred Years of Printing Mentelin was a ‘careless printer’ but a ‘smart businessman’, and his German Bible was ‘full of schoolboy howlers’.

Mentelin had the resources to take on major projects, none more ambitious than the one from which this leaf comes. Two centuries earlier a Dominican friar, Vincent of Beauvais, working at an abbey near Paris, had compiled a monumental encyclopedia entitled Speculum Maius (The Greater Mirror), intended to reflect all knowledge, as known in the Western world at that time. It was the mediaeval Britannica, and no greater encyclopedia was compiled until the French did it in the 18th century.

One part of the Speculum Maius was the Speculum Historiale (Mirror of History), covering human history from the Creation to the (then) present day. It was this astonishing work, at one and a half million words twice the length of the Bible, that Mentelin decided to put into print for the first time. Vincent divided his history into 31 ‘books’, with a total of 3793 chapters. Mentelin published it in four huge volumes, weighing over 16 kg in all, the last one dated 4th December 1473.

My leaf comes from near the end of Volume four, and includes chapters 127 to 130 of Vincent‘s Book 31. The text is in Latin and describes events in the reigns of the French kings Ludovicus (Louis) VIII and IX in the 1220s. There is also mention, four lines from the end of the verso page, of ‘henricû anglicû regê’, ‘Henry king of England’.

Several features make this leaf particularly attractive. In scale it is slightly larger than a modern A3 sheet (and considerably larger than a page of the London Times newspaper today). The margins are generous and the paper sumptuous – approximately 130 gsm in weight in modern terms. The book was one of the first to use a typeface approximating to what is now called ‘roman’, making it more legible to the modern eye, though the abbreviations are still a drawback. A different and rather quaint upper case face is used for the chapter titles.

Three-line initials in red and blue draw the eye to the start of each chapter, and headings of ‘L’ and ‘XXXI’ tell us we are in Book (Liber) 31. Making the red insertions paler on the scanned page brings up a hidden printed letter ‘e’ on the left. This is the ‘guide letter’ inserted by the printer to tell the rubricator what initial should be placed in the blank space here.

I’ve not managed to identify the source of the paper, though the watermark of a six-lined star above a crescent is one that was used by several German papermakers.

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