What would draw an eighteenth-century reader to an early sixteenth-century book, written in Latin, on venereal disease?
The Folger Shakespeare Library’s copy of Ulrich von Hutten’s book De Guaici medicina et morbo gallico liber unus printed in 1531 by Johann Schöffer in Mainz includes interesting clues to answer such a question.
First printed in 1519, De Guaici medicina was one of the first books dealing with venereal disease. Von Hutten’s description of his own experience with “the French disease” (syphilis) and how it was cured must have reached out to an audience beyond medical practitioners. It was printed in numerous editions, in Latin and the vernacular, which flourished in various countries throughout the century. Von Hutten’s book was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum not for its subject matter—as a matter of fact, the first German editions of the book were dedicated to the Archbishop of Mainz—but because of its author’s support of the Lutheran cause.
Two manuscript inscriptions on the front flyleaves dating from 1737 indicate that the Folger copy belonged to Joseph Brereton, a graduate of Queens’ College at Cambridge.
A note on the back flyleaf also includes his name.
Beyond marking the ownership of the copy, these inscriptions comment on the imprint of the book, emphasizing its city of printing (Mainz) and the family connection of its printer, Johann Schöffer, to the famous fifteenth-century printing associates, Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer. Johann Schöffer was the son of Peter and the grandson of Johann Fust. As a matter of fact, the note on the back flyleaf attributes the invention of printing to Fust in 1450!
Johann Schöffer used the printer’s mark of his father and grandfather (which was also the first printer’s mark ever used in a book). This was common practice in the printing industry and demonstrated business continuity.
It also created a beneficial confusion with one’s predecessors, especially when they had been illustrious practitioners (and clearly this aura could last for centuries). Aldus Manutius’s sons also used the same trick, and greatly profited from using their father’s famous printer’s mark of the anchor and the dolphin, a brand mark which conveyed the prestige of their father.
While at Cambridge, Joseph Brereton acquired fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century books, mostly English, including several Caxtons.1 Brereton frequently wrote notes in his books commenting on their literary quality and other points worth remarking on. For Brereton, van Hutten’s book would have been of interest for its connection to the two fifteenth-century printers more than for its content (although that would, of course, still have been relevant in the eighteenth century).
Also of interest in our copy of De Guaici medicina is the manuscript strip of vellum pasted on a front flyleaf and on which an eighteenth-century owner (whose name has been erased below the text) described their observations about the book:
“When I took this book out of its cover by laying the pages as you see above and Reading them against the light, I could plainly see the Heifers Head and Horns as above described being the same mark on the paper on which the inventors of the art of printing John Faust and Peter Schoeffer printed their first books: the printer of this book was grandson to John Faust and son of Peter Schoeffer by Faust’s daughter Vide Palmers History of Printing in quarto London 1732.”
Clearly the owner of this note, like Brereton, was interested in printing history as the reference to Samuel Palmer’s book A General History of Printing… indicates. Palmer’s book was a geographical guide to the history of fifteenth-century printing recording activity city by city, with a large section on Mainz, Fust, and Schöffer.
More intriguing, though, is the mention of the paper watermark on which De Guaici medicina was printed: clearly this is what made the connection to Fust and the elder Schöffer tangible for this reader and sustained the belief that it was the printers’ paper with their mark. Above the manuscript note is a meticulous diagram showing the watermark on parts of the unfolded sheets for signatures D and H.
Because the format of the book is an octavo, the watermark is located where the paper was folded and sewn. As a result, it is barely visible when the book is bound. The early modern author of the note on vellum thus had a unique opportunity to examine this mark when the book was unbound, which explains their effort to document it.
It is also probably to point to the significance of the watermark that someone (perhaps the author of the note on the vellum strip) drew it on the front and back flyleaves of the book and made some tracings visible in some openings of the book.
A quote in Latin describing this watermark, attributed to Gabriel Naudé, the seventeenth-century librarian of the collection of the politically powerful French cardinal Mazarin and author of a famous guide on how to build a private library,2 was placed below the drawing shown above.
While it is unclear whether Brereton is the author of the vellum note, the various marks and notes in this book show the interest of eighteenth-century book owners in the first printers, which led them to examine closely the physical characteristics of their books.
In the end, though, it is doubtful that the watermark in De Guaici medicina was one of those that appeared in Fust and Schöffer books. Likewise, the carefully made diagram of an unfolded printed sheet displays signatures in their wrong order. Obviously, these investigations were supported neither by a clear understanding of the process of making a book nor by a substantial literature on these subjects, which then was still in its infancy.
- On Brereton see Anthony Edwards, “Joseph Brereton”, The Book Collector, 6th ser. (14) 1992, pp. 337-356
- Naudé’s treatise was translated into English in 1661 by John Evelyn