Karen Attar selects a book from among the many treasures found in the Special Collections in Senate House Library, and reveals its interest for a number of London Rare Books School courses
From the inception of the London Rare Books School, the examination of physical books, manuscripts and related objects has been a key feature of the courses. Senate House Library – the central library of the University of London and the School of Advanced Study – is the main supplier of this material. Some items provided are specific to particular courses, such as a piece of papyrus shown to students studying ‘The Book in the Ancient World’, or a facsimile of the Book of Kells brought out for scholars on ‘The Medieval Book’ course. Others serve multiple functions. Here, for example, is a book from the Augustus De Morgan Collection, which has been digitised for release by Brill in a full-text database in 2020
The book in question is Behende vnd hubsche Rechenung auff allen Kauffmanschafft (‘Nimble and neat calculation for all trades’) by Johannes Widmann (Leipzig, 1489). It is a book of practical arithmetic for merchants, which stands out for being allegedly the first book to use the plus and minus signs. Students on several of the London Rare Books School courses might have other reasons for poring over it:
Having been published before the end of the year 1500, the book is an incunable. It originated in Leipzig, a major printing centre in the fifteenth century as later. Konrad Kachelofen (d. 1528/29), who printed it, was Leipzig’s earliest resident printer. Kachelofen printed primarily theological and literary works, especially university textbooks, mostly in Latin. In the context of the Incunabula course, one would note divergences from the norm: that the book is in the vernacular rather than Latin, and that the format is octavo (most surviving incunable editions are quarto or folio). The relevance of the subject matter might also be highlighted: printing is a trade for profit, and publishers invested only in books that they thought would sell. One would observe also the author’s dates (c.1460-c.1500) to see that this is a book which made its first appearance in printed form – unlike the mathematical works by Euclid and Pacioli, for example, which had previously circulated for several centuries in manuscript.
Several points might be made here that would also be made on the ‘Incunabula’ course. Above all is the transition from manuscript to print, shown here by the post-publication provision in blue ink of a capital letter in manuscript. Capital letters have been rubricated, and chapter headings underlined and brackets supplied in red; the beginnings of chapter headings have been touched up in blue.
The fraktur type was designed to resemble manuscript, and abbreviations common in manuscripts are carried over here, evident as early as the title page, where a tilde over the “e” replaces the letter “n” in “behe[n]de”. There is a title page – an innovation which followed the introduction of printing by moveable type – but, typically of the period, it is devoid of an imprint; to learn the name of the printer and the place and date of printing, one must turn to the colophon
Looking ahead to later centuries of handpress printing, the course would note the lack of leaf numbers and catchwords, and the fact that only the first leaf of each gathering bears a signature.
With its emphasis on how books are put together and how to describe them, the ‘Introduction to Bibliography’ course would note the octavo format, inviting students to look at the chain and wire lines on the pages, and the lower case signatures. It might look at descriptions of the book in various catalogues of incunabula and elsewhere. Turning to textual reproduction, questions would arise about how to expand abbreviations, deal in a modern edition with printing errors made by Kachelofen, note page breaks, and so forth. An edition by Barbara Gärtner (2000) makes Widmann’s textbook a particularly interesting book to examine from such a perspective. The same considerations exercising the mind of traditional bibliographers apply also to digital scholarly editing.
What a rich book from the provenance point of view! The provenance course would follow its history. We cannot tell where the book spent the first three centuries of its life, a common fate of early books. The book’s last individual owner was the mathematical historian Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871), who wrote his notes on the front flyleaf in 1864 and pasted extra notes on to the back flyleaves. In De Morgan’s opinion, it was the copy formerly owned by the renowned German medical practitioner and book collector Georg Kloss (1787-1854), whose early printed books were sold at auction in 1835. De Morgan’s copy of the Kloss catalogue is present in his collection. An inscription on the title page of Widmann reads: “F. von Panzero d.d. Car. Benj. Lengnich ded. 1788”.
One of these two men annotated the book (see notes on leaves G2v and G3r). Karl Benjamin Lengnich (1743-1795), from Danzig, was a librarian, archbishop and numismatist. He published about coins and old books, including an article about the oldest printed books in Danzig’s Mariengkirche, the library entrusted to his care. As for Georg Wolfgang Franz Panzer (1729-1805), to whom Lengnich gave the book, he was another cleric and library superintendent, and was additionally, and more importantly, a book collector and a bibliographer, still famed for his 11-volume Annales typographici of books printed up to 1536 (1793-1803).
This copy of Widmann also shows students that the provenance of a book cannot always be deduced from the book itself. De Morgan’s copy was a gift from John Bellingham Inglis (1780-1870), a scholar and book collector who gave De Morgan the free run of his library. We know of Inglis’s generosity from an external source, an article by De Morgan in the Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society for 1865 on the early history of the plus and minus signs.
This course has clear connections with the ‘Provenance’ course. The difference is partly one of approach: provenance begins with the book, and the history of collecting and of libraries with the individual or corporate owner. Panzer, whose collection of 1,786 early Bibles is held by the Württembergische Landesbibliothek (State Library of Württemberg) in Stuttgart enters the picture again. Most important in this context, however, is Augustus De Morgan, from whom the book came, with the rest of De Morgan’s library, to the University of London in 1871 as its founding collection, ‘in the hope that it may prove the first fruits of a Library which shall ere long become such in all respects as the London University ought to possess’, as the donor, Lord Overstone, wrote to the Registrar of the University. In this course Widmann might be studied in the context of De Morgan’s other books with a clear relationship to the work, such as the brief Algoritm[us] linealis (ca. 1505) tentatively ascribed to Widmann, to De Morgan’s other incunabula, and to his library as a whole.
The binding of the Senate House Library copy of Widmann is an antique style to reflect the age of the content – wooden boards; a metal clasp; three raised bands on the spine – but is an English binding from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, post-dating De Morgan. It resembles other bindings on early books in Senate House Library and indicates the library’s respect for early books, but genuine late mediaeval bindings are to be preferred for the courses. Thus the book misses out on both of the bookbinding courses offered by LRBS, ‘European Bookbinding 1450-1820’ and ‘English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1850’. Never mind; we are fortunate to have some fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century bindings too, and one book cannot do everything. Johannes Widmann’s Behende vnd hubsche Rechenung auff allen Kauffmanschafft does a lot.
Dr Karen Attar is Curator of Rare Books and University Art at Senate House Library, and a Research Fellow in the Institute of English Studies. Among her recent publications is the essay ‘Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871), his Reading, and his Library’, in The Edinburgh History of Reading, vol. 2: Modern Readers, ed. Mary Hammond (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), pp. 62-82.