Bolton Libraries’ Oldest Book – The Historia Scholastica

The Historia Scholastica by Petrus Comestor – Augsburg: Gunther Zainer, 1473

Exodus XXX
Exodus Chapter XXX

The Historia Scholastica is the oldest book in the library’s Rare Book Collection. Printed in the Bavarian city of Augsburg in 1473, it is an example of a religious text book known as a biblical paraphrase, which re-told the stories of the Bible in a simplified form. The original text was compiled in the 12th century by a French clergyman called Petrus Comestor, whose name means ‘Peter the Eater’; so named for ability to ‘devour’ huge quantities of books as he travelled round Europe.

At some point in its history something has taken the idea of devouring books a little too literally as there is evidence in our copy of insect damage (what used to be called ‘bookworms’)!

Books printed before 1500 are known as incunabula, a Latin term which literally means ‘in the cradle’ and refers to any book produced in the early days of printing. This is a copy of the first edition of the book and is interesting for its use of Roman type, which had only just been invented in 1470. Many of the books printed in Germany at this date used what is known as Gothic or Black Letter type, which was aimed to replicate the hand-written lettering of manuscripts. This edition was printed by Gunther Zainer, who was originally from Strasbourg where Johannes Gutenberg set up his first printing press.

Initial from Exodus XXX
Initial from Exodus XXX

In this early period of printing, many of the features of handwritten books carried over into print. The large, woodcut initials which appear at the start of each chapter are designed so that the owner of the book can illuminate it (in other words, colour it in) at a later date.

It’s also worth noting the wide margins, which enabled readers to make their own notes, known as marginalia. Our copy has a lot of examples of this: a reminder that this book’s original purpose was a teaching aid and very much a working textbook!

Marginalia from the Historia Scholastica

Our copy came from the library of Syston Park, a country house in Lincolnshire which was known for its large collection of incunabula, many of which, like ours, were bound by a local Grantham bookbinder R. Storr. The Syston Park collection was sold in 1884 and this book was bought by Thomas Holden, a local collector whose family donated many of his books to Bolton Library after his death. Holden also owned a much older manuscript copy of the Historia Scholastica from 1303.