Doodles in a book of church law

A leaf from Super V Libros decretalium (vol 4) by Nicolaus de Tudeschis (Panormitas), printed by Berthold Ruppel, Bernhard Richel, and Michael Wenssler in Basel in 1477 (370 x 290 mm)

Basel, 200 miles up the Rhine from Mainz, was a German city until it joined the Swiss Federation in 1501. The first printer to come there was Berthold Ruppel in the late 1460s. He is thought to be the same man as the ‘Bechtolff von Hanau’ described as a servant of Gutenberg in the record of the Gutenberg and Fust court proceedings in 1455.

I found the leaf opposite in a bookshop in Honiton, Devon, where it was hanging on the wall. The bookseller who sold it was unable to say where it came from. It was eventually identified for me by an expert at the University of Kent, David Shaw, from a study of the typeface. By comparison with a copy of the relevant book in the British Library he was able to pin it down as coming from Volume 4 of an enormous work attributed to three Basel printers, Berthold Ruppel, Bernhard Richel, and Michael Wenssler. The main text font in which this particular leaf is printed is one used by Richel in 1476-8. (A leaf from another edition of the same work, printed in Vnice, can be seen here.)

Early printers did not shy away from taking on huge projects, despite the financial risks involved. The five-volume work from which this leaf comes runs to a total of 2400 pages, more than two million words, and is a commentary in Latin by a leading legal scholar, Nicolaus de Tudeschis, on another massive work known as the Decretals of Gregory IX. This was a compilation of canon law – the rules and decrees (‘decretals’) that govern the Catholic Church – assembled for Pope Gregory by his chaplain, St Richard. It runs to 1791 chapters, so Nicolaus had plenty of material on to base his detailed commentary.

With its abundance of contractions and abbreviations and dry subject-matter, Super V Libros decretalium (On the five books of decretals) this cannot have been an easy book to read. Rubrication picks out the start of new paragraphs, but apart from the line-end double hyphen, the only punctuation is an occasional dot or ‘point’.

roman numerals

This sometimes serves to indicate a short break where a reader might draw breath, the equivalent of a comma today; more often it appears on either side of a letter to indicate that it should be read as a roman numeral, as shown here.

We can sympathize with the reader who has left his mark on this leaf, carefully indicating selected passages with a neat line down the side of the text. On the verso page, he indicates an important point of reference in the text by means of a hand with a pointing finger, a symbol called a ‘manicule’ that is still in use today; it appears on my computer screen whenever the cursor moves over an internet link. But what should we make of the faces peeping out from the text? Do they have meaning or are they simply the doodles of a bored student of canon law?

Ruppel leaf fragment

Fragment of another leaf printed in Basel by Berthold
Ruppel, from his 1472-4 edition of Moralia super Job by Pope Gregory I