Today I took my book history class to the library. Their task? To collect as many 19th-century books as they could (since the catalogue indicated that we have a number in the stacks).
They found a lot of intriguing books. One biography of Alexander Hamilton had several newspaper clippings (ca. 1899) pasted to the flyleaves. In a German biography of Bismarck, we found a smaller-format page torn out of another German book, apparently used as a bookmark. My German may be rusty, but it’s still good enough to tell that the torn-out page was from a German account of the Mexican-American War. We also found an 1867 edition of Pollard’s The Lost Cause, the first Southern account of the Civil War. The earliest book my students found in the stacks, published in 1838, is Shakespeare and his Friends, Or, “The golden age” of merry England, a novel which I obviously must read immediately.
I’m friends with our subject librarian, and I had talked to her about the visit. She had mentioned that there were some shelves of discards that the library still hadn’t gotten rid of (note, 10/19: see clarification below). So after my students and I ooh-ed and aah-ed over the discoveries from the stacks, we headed up to her office. She took us back to the discard shelves and pulled a few books for us to look at. “Oh, and there’s this one,” she said, handing me a thick vellum-bound book. She had pulled it because she thought we’d like to see its binding. My jaw dropped when she handed it to me and I looked at the title page: it was a Latin bible published in 1591. On the discard shelf.
At first, I thought it had to be a facsimile. (We had already seen one facsimile from the stacks.) But the binding certainly looked contemporary. And that was definitely 16th-century paper…
(I apologize for the iPhone photos that follow. I was too excited to wait for proper equipment!)
I may have hugged it. Gently.
Since the book had already been removed from the collection, I was allowed to take it back to my office, where I pored over it all afternoon.
The USTC lists two Latin bibles published in Basel with this title: one in 1578 (also described as the “secundum editionem”) and a 1590 edition bearing the same title, but presumably including only the New Testament, since it has “tomus secundus” appended to the title. The 1591 edition (impression?) sitting in front of me does not appear in USTC.
The 1578 and 1590 editions were both printed by Thomas Guarin. Although the title page of this book bears no explicit imprint, below you can see a close-up of the printer’s device, which reads “Palma Guar” and which I therefore assume is Guarin’s. (If anyone can point me to a compilation of printers’ devices that would include Swiss printers, I would greatly appreciate it!)
It’s an amazing book. The two maps are still intact, as you can see below:
The binding is remarkably strong. As you can just barely see in the background of the above image, I fashioned a makeshift cradle out of two (bright blue) binders, but it wouldn’t have been absolutely necessary. Snakes would have made the process quite a bit easier, though!
This seems like a relatively lavish bible to me in that there are many detailed engravings. Here are a couple of my favorites so far:
The fact that this bible was printed in Basel implies protestant leanings, but to someone like me who is primarily familiar with the Geneva Bible, the frequency of the images leaps out as unusual. Perhaps this is merely a result of my lack of familiarity with continental protestant bibles, though.
At first, it also seemed strange to me that a bible would be printed in Latin in protestant Basel, since protestants are typically so strongly associated with bibles in the vernacular. However, Switzerland’s low literacy rate meant that publishers relied on book fairs for most of their sales, as Lukas Erne points out:
[T]he proportion of people reading regularly was probably no higher than 2 per cent before and 4 per cent after the Reformation. Publishers therefore did not primarily aim at local sales, and the book fairs in Frankfurt, Leipzig, Paris, and Lyons remained of great importance for the dissemination of books produced in Switzerland. This may also explain why throughout the 16th and 17th centuries books printed in Switzerland—contrary to other European countries—mostly continued to appear in Latin rather than in the vernacular. (source)
I’ve discovered a fair amount of information about this book in the past few hours, and there’s still so much to learn. Who was Thomas Guarin? My initial searches have turned up no scholarship about him, though from USTC I can tell that he was a prolific publisher: searching for his name returns 100 results from 1559–1590. (The last result, in fact, is the 1590 edition of this bible. Does this 1591 edition/impression extend our evidence of his career past a previously known end date?) In addition to bibles, he published Plotinus, Paracelsus, Cicero, Plutarch, Isocrates, Aristotle, and Pietro Bembo. The vast majority of his works are in Latin, but he also published in Greek, Hebrew, German and even twice in English (two books by Thomas Cartwright responding to Whitgift). But who was Guarin? Do any records survive about him?
These are questions I hope to pursue further—but I hope that anyone who reads this and has suggestions for me will leave a comment to let me know!
For everyone else, which biblical stories should I look up in this bible to see if there are engravings as amazing as Noah’s unicorns and Jael?
Edit for clarification, 10/19: There are a couple of points on which my original post was unclear, so I’d like to address those.
- I didn’t mean to imply that I saved the book from being immediately tossed in a Goodwill box or something. It was on the discard shelf because it had been pulled from the collection (where previously it had been hanging out in the stacks—it’s got a bar code and everything), but the library hadn’t yet decided what to do with it. They probably would have sold it eventually if I hadn’t stumbled across it. In any case, it was still there because of the librarians. They saved it; I recognized that it could be worth researching and keeping.
- I was allowed to take the book with me to use and research for the foreseeable future, but it wasn’t given to me. Nor should it be: it’s the sort of thing that I’d like to see become a point of pride for our library, and I want to find out everything I can about it so that I can persuade the college to invest in its worth. After all, Wartburg is an ELCA school, and a 16th-century bible printed in Basel could become the “crown jewel” of our collection.