Exploring Our Incunabula: A 1485 Printing of Virgil’s Works

The following blog post written by Courtney Harshbarger describes her summertime experience volunteering in the William H. Hannon Library’s Archives and Special Collections to conduct research on our incunabula. Incunabula are the earliest European books printed with movable type, dating from Johannes Gutenberg’s invention in the mid-1450s to the end of the 15th century. Courtney’s mission: to add some of LMU’s incunabula to the growing database of Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI). MEI was conceived by Dr. Cristina Dondi, University of Oxford, and is maintained by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL). It seeks to trace the individual journeys of each surviving book from the origin of its creation and earliest owners to its current location. The MEI database is a powerful tool that helps researchers understand the spread of knowledge as the books were bought, sold and shared around the world. The William H. Hannon Library is proud to be represented within it. Thank you, Courtney!

On my first day volunteering in Special Collections, I walked in to find a big, beautiful book waiting for me. It was a selection of Virgil’s works that had been printed in Brescia, Italy by Jacobus Britannicus in 1485. My task was to use any physical clues from the book itself to try to uncover its past ownership and to map out where it had travelled over the past 500 years.

I first looked over the library’s catalog description of the book and proceeded to be distracted for several minutes after noting that the book was printed on August 22, 1485, which just so happens to be the exact date of the Battle of Bosworth (where Richard III became the last English monarch to die in battle). I knew that a battle in a different country hundreds of miles away wouldn’t be much help in my project, but that’s one of the most interesting things about working with old books – they have survived through so much history.

After I was able to stop geeking out about unrelated medieval warfare, I opened the book to look for any clues from its previous owners. The prospect seemed daunting, but there on the first page were several handwritten notes from hundreds of years ago.

Opera cum commentariis Servii
Opera cum commentariis Servii / Virgil

I started with the clearest handwriting and was able to transcribe one of the inscriptions, which said “pro Conventu Bamberg. F. F. Minorum ad S. Annam.”

Reads: “pro Conventu Bamberg. F. F. Minorum ad S. Annam”

I searched these terms until I came across an Order of Franciscan friars in Bamberg, Germany that was founded in the 1300s and included a large personal library for the friars. Because of the explicit inscription, I was certain that this Order had been in possession of our copy of Virgil at some point, so I was able to add Germany to the list of countries where it had travelled. Through my research, I also noticed that the Bamberg Order’s library closed in 1799, so I recorded 1799 as the latest possible date that the book could have still been there.

After I felt that it was time to move on, I went on to other inscriptions and clues to see what else I could learn about the book’s life. The most appealing to me was the lavish coat of arms on the front and back cover of the book.

Front cover: Opera cum commentariis Servii
Back cover: Opera cum commentariis Servii

The LMU catalogue had already identified the coat of arms as belonging to the Spencer family, who were very prominent throughout medieval England. At that point I had already recorded that the book had been in England in the late 1800s, as evidenced by a stamp from the Ealing Public Library on several pages. I assumed that the book must have stayed in England for most of its life, from its use by the Spencer family up through its time at Ealing Public Library, but there was a new strange piece of evidence that suggested otherwise.

A German librarian named Friedrich Adolf Ebert recorded that his library was in possession of the book up until 1834. It seemed odd that the book would have gone to Germany, then to England, then back to Germany and back to England again. I was completely stumped, so the Head of Archives and Special Collections, Cynthia Becht, put me in touch with Oxford professor Cristina Dondi to see if her expertise could help.

Cristina began asking other experts for their opinions and eventually scholars from around the world were caught in an email chain trying to solve the mystery. A professor at the University of Manchester was able to tell us that our Spencer coat of arms belonged to Charles Spencer, third Earl of Sunderland (1674-1722). She also provided evidence that the Sunderland estate had been in possession of the book between 1881 and 1883 and had then sold it, presumably to Ealing Public library.

It seemed like we were on the right track, but there were several questions about the age of the binding. If the German librarian Ebert had been in possession of the book until 1834, how were Charles Spencer’s arms on the binding even though he had died several years before his posthumous estate was in possession of the book?

We still haven’t been able to solve this particular mystery, but a professor from the University of Toronto is trying to determine if the Spencer arms could have been added sometime in the mid 19th century. If they were added later, that would mean that the book did stay in Germany for many hundreds of years before heading to England in the 19th century. If the arms are early, the book may have had a long winding journey back and forth between the two countries.

Beyond this one mystery, there are still several more inscriptions and physical clues that could lead us to uncover much more about the life of our 1485 Virgil.

This type of work is never truly done, but the research can uncover fascinating pieces of history and it certainly adds to the character of a book.

Courtney Harshbarger graduated with an English degree from LMU in 2019. She plans to continue her medieval research at graduate school in the UK where she can’t wait to explore crumbling castles and possibly catch a glimpse of the Loch Ness Monster.